Amy Allen | Revolution, History, and the Beyond of Capitalism: Re-reading the Luxemburg-Bernstein Debate

By Amy Allen

How should we read the debate between Rosa Luxemburg and Eduard Bernstein now?

At first glance, it might seem like a family squabble that turns on questions of political strategy. After all, Bernstein and Luxemburg profess to share the same goal: the achievement of democratic socialism. They also share a willingness to question socialist orthodoxy when it fails to conform with how they see the facts on the ground. Above all, they were both “loyal to reality and critical of Marx,” as Hannah Arendt put it.[1]

For Bernstein, loyalty to reality meant acknowledging that capitalism is not, in fact, on the verge of collapse but instead that it displays a remarkable tendency to adapt itself; that the transition to socialism can be accomplished via peaceful, parliamentary reforms; and that the best way to achieve that transition while redressing capitalism’s exploitative and crisis tendencies is to strengthen and expand democracy. Indeed, for Bernstein, democracy is not just an aim of socialist struggle, it is also a precondition for socialism. As he puts it: “Democracy is both means and end. It is a weapon in the struggle for socialism, and it is the form in which socialism will be realized.”[2] To achieve this end, existing liberal institutions must be “further developed,” not “destroyed.” “For that,” he continues, “we require organization and energetic action, but not necessarily a revolutionary dictatorship.”[3]

In her response, Luxemburg insists that the realization of socialism requires radical change that cannot possibly be achieved through reform. For her, to pursue reform is to pursue a totally different goal. Importantly, this does not mean that Luxemburg is opposed to the struggle for piecemeal reforms that might improve the lives of workers; it just means that she believes that bringing down capitalism requires a different sort of struggle. As she puts it: “people who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place of 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.” Their goal is, de facto, “not the realization of Socialism, but the reform of capitalism.”[4]

In making her case, Luxemburg repeatedly attacks Bernstein’s faith that progressive change can come from within the existing system. For example, Bernstein sees trade unions and cooperatives as vehicles for the evolutionary transition to socialism. Luxemburg, by contrast, insists that because unions operate wholly within the capitalist system of exploitation, they are in no position to overturn capitalism; the best they can do is to mitigate some of its harmful effects. She is similarly critical of Bernstein’s emphasis on parliamentary reforms. Like Lenin in The State and Revolution, Luxemburg insists that the state is a class state that serves the interests of the capitalists; thus, pursuing reform through the state is a waste of time. Meaningful change can come about only through the overthrow of the state: “only the hammer blow of revolution, that is to say, the conquest of political power by the proletariat” can bring about socialism.[5] Related to this is Bernstein’s misunderstanding of the relationship between democracy and socialism. Mistaking actually existing liberal democracy for true democracy, Bernstein gets this relationship backwards: liberal democracy is not a precondition of socialism but a bourgeois impediment to it; socialism is a precondition of true democracy—“the fate of democracy is bound with the Socialist movement”[6]—not the other way round.

That said, if Luxemburg sides with Lenin in her critique of bourgeois, liberal democracy, she agrees with Bernstein about the dangers of Lenin’s anti-democratic interpretation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin’s “elimination of democracy as such,” she insists, “is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure….”[7] Though she was not shy about the need for a revolutionary vanguard to lead and educate the proletarian masses, nor was she squeamish about the use of force (either in theory or in praxis), she was nevertheless a strong critic of Lenin’s “pitiless centralism” and a passionate defender of the spontaneity and creativity of freedom and action that are central to radical democracy.[8] As Bernard Harcourt put it in his introduction to this seminar, her position on democracy makes Luxemburg “the main angle of a triangle that still today demarcates the Left”—in contemporary critical theory terms, on the question of democracy and socialism, she’s stands between the reformism of someone like Axel Honneth and the neo-Leninism of Slavoj Zizek. As Arendt—who no doubt saw a kindred spirit animating Luxemburg’s emphasis on radical democracy and the spontaneity and creativity of action—points out, Luxemburg “did not believe in a victory in which the people at large had no part and no voice; so little, indeed, did she believe in holding power at any price that she ‘was far more afraid of a deformed revolution than an unsuccessful one’.”[9] Moreover, Arendt continues, didn’t the subsequent history of the Soviet Union’s “deformed revolution” prove Luxemburg right?

At one level, then, the Luxemburg-Bernstein debate is a dispute about whether meaningful progressive change can come from within the system or must instead come from without. As such, it bears, at least indirectly, on the question of the material conditions for the production of critical theory. Where one comes down on this question will depend on what sort of change one thinks is needed. For Luxemburg, change must be radical and revolutionary or else it is meaningless. As she puts it:

The international movement of the proletariat toward its complete emancipation is a process peculiar in the following respect. For the first time in the history of civilization, the people are expressing their will consciously and in opposition to all ruling classes. But this will can only be satisfied beyond the limits of the existing system. Now the mass can only acquire and strengthen this will in the courses of the day-to-day struggle against the social order—that is, within the limits of the capitalist society. On the one hand, we have the mass; on the other, its historic goal, located outside of existing society. On the one hand, we have the day-to-day struggle; on the other, the social revolution. Such are the terms of the dialectical contradiction through which the Socialist movement makes its way.[10]

In other words, although change must be fought for within the existing system (for how else can politics find its foothold?), it necessarily aims to transcend that system.

So far, so good. But, attractive as Luxemburg’s radical, revolutionary alternative to Bernstein’s staid reformism and Lenin’s anti-democratic party discipline may be, her position gets a bit more difficult to swallow when we ask further about this beyond or outside. What gives Luxemburg access to this point of view outside of or beyond capitalism and existing liberal democracy? Although a partial answer may be supplied by her keen analysis of the relationship between capitalism and its outside—the non- or pre-capitalist economies on which it necessarily depends—even this insight is of a piece with Luxemburg’s commitment to Marx’s theory of history (as she understood it; I’ll come back to that in a moment). After all, Bernstein’s mistake is not just that he attempts to make change from within the system but also that, in questioning capitalism’s inevitable collapse, he gives up on the materialist theory of history. By abandoning the scientific socialist commitment to the “objective necessity of socialism, the explanation of socialism as the result of the material development of society,” Bernstein falls into idealism.[11]

Her commitment to Marx’s theory of history is the thread that connects Luxemburg’s critique of Bernstein in Reform or Revolution to her groundbreaking interpretation of primitive accumulation in The Accumulation of Capital. The Accumulation of Capital offers a detailed immanent critique of Marx’s critique of political economy that concludes with the historical inevitability of capitalism’s downfall.[12] Even as Luxemburg claims that Marx himself never quite fully grasped the logic that leads to this outcome, she seeks to explain this logic via a creative interpretation of Marxist concepts.[13] As she argues at great length, Marx’s work poses but never satisfactorily answers the crucial question of precisely how capital accumulates. Indeed, Luxemburg maintains that this question cannot be answered from within the terms that Marx used to formulate it. The key to answering it is realizing that capitalism is dependent—not just at its inception but throughout its existence—on a non- or pre-capitalist outside that serves as a source of raw materials, additional labor power, and a market for the goods that must be sold in order for the surplus value generated in capitalist production to be realized.

This insight provides the inspiration for Luxemburg’s justifiably famous rewriting of Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation, which she understands as both a historical process that enabled the emergence of the first capitalist economy and an ongoing process that is constitutive for all capitalist production. The primary mechanism of the ongoing accumulation at the time of her writing (The Accumulation of Capital was published in 1913) is colonial policy. As Luxemburg puts the point: “At the time of primitive accumulation, i.e., at the end of the Middle Ages, when the history of capitalism in Europe began, and right into the nineteenth century, dispossessing the peasants in England and on the Continent was the most striking weapon in the large-scale transformation of means of production and labour power into capital. Yet capital in power performs the same task even today, and on an even more important scale—by modern colonial policy.”[14]

Luxemburg argues that even as capitalism depends on a pre-capitalist outside in order to fulfill its prime directive, the ongoing accumulation of capital, it systematically destroys and dismantles the very pre-capitalist outside on which it depends. Capitalism disrupts natural economies, separates industry from agriculture, dispossesses peoples of their land and their means of production, and forces colonized peoples into commodity production in a doomed effort to compete with capitalist enterprise. In the process, it draws those pre-capitalist economies into itself. As Luxemburg explains, “the accumulation of capital is a kind of metabolism between capitalist economy and those pre-capitalist methods of production without which it cannot go on and which, in this light, it corrodes and assimilates. Thus capital cannot accumulate without the aid of non-capitalist organizations, nor, on the other hand, can it tolerate their continued existence side by side with itself. Only the continuous and progressive disintegration of non-capitalist organizations makes accumulation of capital possible.”[15] The logical conclusion of this process is the complete domination of capital over all of the branches of the economy in the entire world. However, and herein lies the rub, no sooner would this conclusion be reached than capital would suddenly be unable to realize itself and accumulation would cease. Given that the ongoing accumulation of capital is the core of capitalism, its raison d’être, this would mean the collapse of capitalism itself. “For capital, the standstill of accumulation means that the development of the productive forces is arrested, and the collapse of capitalism follows inevitably, as an objective historical necessity.”[16]

What, then, are we to make of Luxemburg’s theory of history, which is central not only to her critique of Bernstein but also to her critique of imperialism in The Accumulation of Capital? What do we do with the fascinating and deeply contradictory legacy of her brilliant interpretation of primitive accumulation, which generates a powerful critique of imperialism but also embeds that critique in the kind of historicist thinking (replete with its talk of “backward” peoples and “primitive” economies) that is also so central to imperialist ideology? Can this aspect of Luxemburg’s work be “creolized?”[17] If so, how? Can we take up Luxemburg’s critique of imperialism anew or is it indelibly marked by her commitment to the kind of progressive, developmentalist theory of universal history which has been so thoroughly criticized by postcolonial readers of Marx? Indeed, although Luxemburg is deeply critical of Marx in The Accumulation of Capital—after all, the charge that he is unable to explain the thing that he himself takes to be the central defining characteristic of capitalism cuts pretty deep—her criticism isn’t motivated by a disagreement with Marx’s theory of history. If anything, she is even more committed to the Marxist theory of history than Marx himself was in the end, especially if we believe readers like Kevin Anderson who have attempted to respond to the postcolonial critique.[18] Far from rejecting the materialist theory of history, Luxemburg’s aim seems to be that of working out all of its internal inconsistencies and providing a more compelling explanation of its internal logic.

Luxemburg’s is an attractive position in many ways and one that continues to resonate today. When I teach her debate with Bernstein, most of my students are enthusiastically team Rosa, and they look down on Bernstein as a milquetoast reformist. Still, we should ask whether her faith in the historical beyond of capitalism, a faith rooted in her interpretation of the materialist theory of history, is what sustained her revolutionary fervor? And, if so, what might sustain such fervor for us, if we can no longer share that faith?


[1] Hannah Arendt, “Rosa Luxemburg: 1871-1919,” in Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1968), p. 50.

[2] Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions of Socialism, ed. Henry Tudor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 142.

[3] Ibid., p. 158.

[4] Rosa Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution,” in Reform or Revolution and Other Writings (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006), p. 58

[5] Ibid., p. 31.

[6] Ibid., p. 56.

[7] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” in Reform or Revolution, p. 210.

[8] Luxemburg, “Leninism or Marxism?” in Reform or Revolution, p. 79.

[9] Arendt, “Rosa Luxemburg,” p. 53.

[10] Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution,” p. 95, emphasis added.

[11] Ibid., p. 11.

[12] Although she insists on the inevitability of capitalism’s downfall, she also maintains that its demise may be hastened by the revolutionary action of the proletariat (which in turn can be encouraged through the educational, cultural, and activist work of the vanguard). Thus, her view is not straightforwardly determinist, but instead, as I discussed above, leaves a lot of room in her work for spontaneity, action, and freedom.

[13] Thus, I think it is wrong to imply, as Arendt does, that Luxemburg’s position on this point is non-Marxist. See Arendt, “Rosa Luxemburg,” pp. 39-40.

[14] Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, trans. Agnes Schwarzschild (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 350.

[15] Ibid., p. 397.

[16] Ibid., pp. 397-398.

[17] Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell, “Introduction: ‘I Have a Thousand More Things I Want to Say to You’: An Introduction to Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg,” 1-25, in Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg, eds. Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021).

[18] Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).