Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Revolution 5/13 on Rosa Luxemburg

By Bernard E. Harcourt


No coarser insult, no baser aspersion, can be thrown against the workers that the remark: “Theoretic controversies are only for academicians.”

— Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution (1899)[1]

To break down the conventional division of labor between theory and practice—between critique and praxis: that was at the very heart of Rosa Luxemburg’s worldly revolutionary philosophy. On her view, critical theory could not be relegated to the academy or to academicians. Nor could it be the privilege of the intellectual vanguard of a revolutionary party. Theoretical debates and controversies had to be the stuff of all workers—they all had to become acquainted, to engage, and to understand the theory of society in order to rise up, to mass strike, to bring about a new social order.

For Rosa Luxemburg, theoretical knowledge was the sine qua non of revolutionary change, and she lived this out to the fullest in a life of study and revolution, imparting what she discovered about political economy and critical praxis through her many speeches, her articles and pamphlets, her treatise on The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism (published in 1913 and generally considered to be her magnum opus), and her own revolutionary action. “The entire strength of the modern Labor movement,” Luxemburg maintained, “rests on theoretic knowledge.”[2] Her faith reflected in part her minority status in the Social Democratic movement and party in Germany (SPD)—and thus, her need to reach out directly to the people in order to contest parliamentary reformism, to call for a general strike, to oppose the war, to form a communist party, the Spartacus League. But it was also her life’s calling.

Rosa Luxemburg began studying economics. She received her doctorate in economics from the University of Zurich in 1897 at the young age of 26. Her doctoral dissertation, which focused on the political economy of Poland, titled The Industrial Development of Poland, was immediately published as a book. On the basis of her doctoral research, Luxemburg opposed the national independence efforts in Poland, arguing instead for an internationalist program. As part of the SPD in Germany, Luxemburg lectured and taught economics to workers in the party school from about 1906 to the time of the publication of her book, The Accumulation of Capital, just before the war.[3] (This is all brilliantly spelled out in Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell’s introduction and the chapters of their new collected volume, Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg, just published at Rowman & Littlefield).[4]

With her love of learning and teaching, and her passion to break down the gap between critique and praxis, Rosa Luxemburg placed her faith in the working class. More important than getting it right, what mattered was who made the decisions and how—and to not be disheartened by failures, but rather to learn from them. Luxemburg claimed that right. “The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn the dialectic of history,” Luxemburg declared. Closing out her tract on Leninism or Marxism? in 1904, Luxemburg wrote:

Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.[5]

Contemporary Resonances

In her now-famous debates with Lenin on the one hand and Eduard Bernstein on the other, Rosa Luxemburg formed the main angle of a triangle that still today demarcates the Left. Lenin stood for the vanguardist centralized top-down leadership model that essentially had a central committee direct politics and economics for the benefit of the people. On the other side, Bernstein stood for the reformist parliamentary model that relied on electoral politics to birth and nurture the welfare state. Opposed to both—in this way, situated somewhere between Jacobinism on the one hand and Bernie Sanders on the other—Luxemburg stood for a democratic participatory model of revolutionary action that would have inaugurated a socialist horizon through critically-timed general strikes and collective direct action.

Those debates with Lenin and Bernstein still resonate today and can be placed in direct conversation with contemporary political struggles—as we propose to do in these seminars, attentive especially to the material conditions of production of Luxemburg’s writings.

Rosa Luxembourg’s tract Reform or Revolution (1898-99), her most direct engagement against Bernstein and the reformist members of the SPD, presents her main arguments against the abandonment of active class struggle and against the turn to parliamentary electoral politics. There, Luxemburg takes on reformism and parliamentarism, and the bureaucratic nature of the SPD, and advocates for revolutionary action. For our purposes, in the middle of an indefinite strike by our graduate student workers at Columbia University—now the largest ongoing strike in the United States[6]—the controversy between Luxemburg and Bernstein resonates loudly in the debates over unionization, strikes, and collective bargaining. While supportive of trade unionization, Luxemburg noted that it is only one step in the direction of real social change. The reason being that the success of trade unionization and strikes depend on market forces, but are unable to substantially transform them. They operate within the confines of the capitalist logics. They do not fundamentally alter them. Luxemburg wrote:

Trade unions enable the proletariat to utilize, at each instant, the conjuncture of the market. But these conjunctures—(1), the labor demand determined by the state of production, (2), the labor supply created by the proletarianization of the middle strata of society and the natural reproduction of the working class, and (3), the momentary degree of productivity of labor—these remain outside of the sphere of influence of the trade unions. Trade unions cannot suppress the law of wages. Under the most favorable circumstances, the best they can do is to impose on capitalist exploitation the “normal” limits of the moment. They have not, however, the power to suppress exploitation itself, not even gradually.[7]

We can thus reread Luxemburg’s text today in conversation with the labor struggles and the ongoing graduate student workers strike at Columbia University.

Reform or Revolution also speaks directly to the current debate over abolition of the prison-industrial complex, and more specifically over the question of “non-reformist reforms.”[8] How can we engage—or should we? —in any type of reform that is oriented toward the end goal of abolition, or revolution? The whole question of “non-reformist reforms” was anticipated by Rosa Luxemburg in her critique of Bernstein—and here too, her work resonates loudly in the current debate.

It also speaks directly to debates over the place of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) party itself within the Democratic Party coalition in Congress today—and, for instance, the decision of Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib to vote against the Biden administration’s one trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill.

In similar ways, Rosa Luxemburg’s other writings can be read in dialogue with contemporary political struggles. Her short essay Leninism or Marxism? (1904) takes on Leninist vanguardism and argues instead for a more democratic form of Marxism. Luxemburg criticizes Lenin for being too centralized and controlling, and for not allowing for democratic trial and error. This tract also resonates today in the debate over abolition. So, for instance, for many today, abolition has become a kind of litmus test—one is either committed to the abolitionist agenda or not with the program. Recent abolitionist writings, however, especially Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ‘Til We Free Us and Derecka Purnell’s Becoming Abolitionists, begin from the premise that abolitionism is more of a work-in-progress, a form of becoming, rather than a fully theorized framework with unchanging goals.[9] This pushes back precisely on the litmus test critique. In this debate, Luxemburg’s idea of democratic trial and error resonates well.

Her pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Union (1906) argues for the timeliness of a general strike in Germany following the example of the 1905 Russian uprising.[10] This pamphlet can be read in the context of recent and ongoing prison labor strikes, or again in relation to the labor strike of graduate student workers at Columbia and the need for a more general strike. It can also be read in conversation with Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, where he described the mass strike as “non-violent violence.”[11]

Her economic treatise, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), argues that capitalism has inherent imperialist tendencies because of its need to expand consumer markets, but that its imperialist tendencies ultimately will destroy the colonized countries and result in the collapse of capitalism.[12] This work resonates with our earlier discussion of neo-colonialism from Kwame Nkrumah’s writings at Revolution 2/13, and its relevance to the domestic political situation in our own times.

Her famous Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis in German Democracy (1915) presented her pacifist internationalist broadside against her parliamentary colleagues in the SPD who would vote to go to war with France.[13] This pamphlet can be read in the context of the recent Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how members of the Democratic Party also voted to go to war—with what consequences.

The posthumously published The Russian Revolution (written in 1918) argued for revolutionary democracy in the wake of the successful Bolshevik revolution.[14] Robin D. G. Kelley has already brilliantly analyzed the publication of this pamphlet and put it in conversation with Walter Rodney’s posthumously published manuscript on the Russian Revolution and, in Kelley’s words, “the political lessons it could offer revolutionaries in Africa and the Caribbean.”[15]

At our next seminar on December 15, 2021, we will read these texts and explore their contemporary resonance in conversation with Professor Amy Allen who is currently writing a manuscript on Rosa Luxemburg.

Welcome to Revolution 5/13!


[1] Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 1-73, in Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution and Other Writings, ed. Paul Buhle (New York: Dover Publications, 2006), 5.

[2] Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 5.

[3] 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), 11.

[4] Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell, eds., Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021).

[5] Rosa Luxemburg, Leninism or Marxism?, 75-97, in Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution and Other Writings, ed. Paul Buhle (New York: Dover Publications, 2006), 97.

[6] See Ashley Wong, “Why Columbia Student Works Are Back On Strike,” New York Times, November 24, 2021,

[7] Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 20-21.

[8] On “non-reformist reforms,” see Gilmore, Golden Gulag, at 242; Ruth Wilson Gilmore & Craig Gilmore, “Restating the Obvious,” in Indefensible Space: The Architecture of the National Insecurity State, ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Routledge, 2007), at 141; Amna Akbar, “Demands for a Democratic Political Economy,” Harvard Law Review Forum, 134(1):90-118 (2020); Jocelyn Simonson, “Police Reform Through a Power Lens,” Yale L. J. 130:778-1049 (2021); Critical Resistance, Reformist reforms vs. abolitionist steps to end IMPRISONMENT, accessed November 28, 2021,

[9] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021); Derecka Purnell, Becoming Abolitionists (New York: Astra House, 2021).

[10] Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Union, 99-180, in Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution and Other Writings, ed. Paul Buhle (New York: Dover Publications, 2006).

[11] Massimiliano Tomba, “Justice and Divine Violence: Walter Benjamin and the Time of Anticipation,” Theory & Event 20, no. 3 (2017): 579–598.

[12] Rosa Luxemburg, Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism (New York: Routledge, 2003 [1913]).

[13] Rosa Luxemburg, Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis in German Democracy (1915), available online at

[14] Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, 181-222, in Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution and Other Writings, ed. Paul Buhle (New York: Dover Publications, 2006), 97.

[15] Robin D. G. Kelley, “Walter Rodney’s Russian Revolution and the Curious Case of Rosa Luxemburg,” 93-121, in Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg, eds. Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021), 93.