Bernard E. Harcourt | Reading Rosa Luxemburg Today

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In a brilliant essay for Revolution 5/13, “Revolution, History, and the Beyond of Capitalism: Re-reading the Luxemburg-Bernstein Debate,” the philosopher and critical theorist Amy Allen raises a number of timely questions for our collective discussion:

  • Can progressive change come from within a capitalist society?
  • Can trade unionization and cooperatives transform a capitalist economy?
  • What is the relationship between democracy and a just society? Is democracy the prerequisite to the creation of a just society, or does it work the other way round?
  • How does neo-colonialism sustain or augment exploitation and inequality?
  • Are theories of neo-colonialism themselves tainted by imperialist ideology?
  • Does revolutionary fervor depend on a belief in progress or a materialist theory of history?

In this quick response, I will emphasize both a strength and a tension in Rosa Luxemburg’s writings that run between the lines of Amy Allen’s essay.

First, the strength: Rosa Luxemburg’s attention to historical detail. Her theoretical work is immersed in a historical present. It is steeped in historical conjunctures. By contrast to more conventional critical theorists, who develop often abstract or generalizable theories, Luxemburg immersed her critical analyses in rich historical contextualization. So in effect Luxemburg rarely theorizes in the abstract; more often, and especially in her tracts, she is engaged in a historical analysis of the present. And for this reason, her works, much like those of Lenin, often feel like historical artifacts—or become historical artifacts.

A perfect illustration of this is her discussion in The Mass Strike, her essay from 1906 reflecting on the historical experience of the Russian Revolution of 1905. In that essay she confronts the conventional argument against mass strikes that Engels articulated and that many social democratic theorists after him repeated, namely that the mass strike is not a likely means of inaugurating a social revolution because of a catch-22: either the workers are sufficiently organized to bring about a mass strike, in which case they would be sufficiently organized to bring about the social revolution, and therefore, do not need a mass strike; or they are not yet sufficiently organized to carry through a general strike in which case, the general strike will not succeed.[1] Now, what’s particularly revealing about her argument is that she doesn’t engage in that kind of logical analysis or theoretical analysis. She’s not interested in coming up with a theoretical argument about mass strikes that would have an abstract quality of reasoning—a kind of abstract form of theorizing, something that could be developed on the page, in a text, as a matter of rhetoric. Instead, Luxemburg develops a historical analysis of the Russian Revolution of 1905 as a way to contextualize the immediate situation in Germany. Hers is not a theoretical argument, but one that is purely connected to the historical situation on the ground in Germany at the time.

She derides what she calls “abstract unhistorical methods of observation.”[2] She objects to those critical thinkers who would act like what she calls “a board of directors” who would, “put the mass strike in Germany on the calendar on an appointed day.”[3] Instead what she calls for is a minute detailed historical analysis of all of the relations of power going on at the particular time. Analyzing in deep detail the lead up to the Russian Revolution, looking at the accidental outbreak of strikes in 1902 and earlier, it’s this minutiae of historical analysis of what happened—for instance, in 1903 in all of the different regions[4]—and from that close historical reading of the Russian Revolution, she demonstrates how untethered the contemporary discussion in Germany is and how important it is instead to understand the historical dynamics on the ground, in order to show how the detailed historical experience in Russia could possibly be applicable to Germany, focusing on all of the minute historical elements: the poverty of the miners and textile workers (147-48), how the poverty of the land workers would interact, what would be necessary in terms of labor organization, and how it could come about that a mass strike could actually develop in Germany; she speaks about the need for united action of trade unions (166) and all of the different forces that would be necessary to bring about a mass strike. She even discusses the internal struggles that would be needed within the trade union leadership (180).

In effect, Luxemburg is engaged in a different form of theorizing, one very close to the Marx of The 18th of Brumaire and his other historically grounded analyses of the French civil war. I think that this tells us something about some revolutionary philosophers. I’ve sensed this in our other readings as well. For many worldly philosophers, there is an attention to historical context and immersion in historical detail that feels different, often. It is at the same time what makes these works of revolutionary philosophy more dated and passé today. Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlets are not written for our present. They are not intended to guide us in our situation. They are in effect périmé. They’ve become historical artifacts.

To be sure, it’s important to recognize that this isn’t true of all her work. Her economic treatise, The Accumulation of Capital, is probably the work that has the longest afterlife because there, she develops more generalizable propositions about capitalism. Luxemburg argues, for instance, that capitalism becomes impossible when it is limited only to Western capitalist nations; that it therefore needs to engage in imperial conquest; that capitalism needs the whole globe; and that the forms of primitive accumulation that get replicated abroad in the global south will ultimately lead to its demise. “Capital needs the means of production and the labor power of the whole globe for untrammeled accumulation,” she writes; “it cannot manage without the natural resources and the labor power of all territories.”[5] On Luxemburg’s view, this imperial expansion will ultimately lead to the downfall of capitalism: “The more ruthlessly capital sets about the destruction of non-capitalist strata at home and in the outside world, the more it lowers the standard of living for the workers as a whole, the greater also is the change in the day-to-day history of capital. It becomes a string of political and social disasters and convulsions, and under these conditions, punctuated by periodical economic catastrophes or crises, accumulation can go on no longer.”[6] That work is much closer to the abstract theorizing of Marx in Capital. So, there are aspects of her oeuvre that can be abstracted and projected—and those aspects tend to blur the line between the “worldly philosopher” and more academic philosophers. It would be worth interrogating whether she wrote these works for different purposes, whether she herself was playing a different role, or why, more generally, she felt comfortable taking a more abstract and universal approach in that work. But setting that aside, most of her tracts and pamphlets are punctual interventions historically situated. They are unlikely to provide guidance across historical boundaries. What they do instead is to offer questions, problematics, dimensions to explore in any particular moment. They are illustrative of the kinds of analyses we need today—with specific GPS markers and timestamps.

It is in this manner, I would argue, that we should approach Luxemburg’s writings: to develop our own contextual and historically situated analyses of present questions, with our own GPS and date stamps. Most relevant here, now, might be the Columbia graduate student workers strike, which is now the largest strike in the country and showing few signs of stopping—on the contrary, the retaliatory threats by the university are likely to prolong the strike. Or, with relation to our seminar last year, Abolition Democracy 13/13, we might want to explore the question or place of “non-reformist reforms” in abolitionist movements today.

But this raises, second, a tension: Luxemburg’s attention to historical detail conflicts with what Amy Allen correctly identifies as her attachment to Marx’s theory of history. As Allen notes, “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.” How is it possible, we may ask, to be so attuned to historical details and context when one remains wedded to a theory of history? Moreover, what should we think of Marx’s theory of history today? In previous 13/13s, we have interrogated Marx’s and other theories of history—those of Angela Davis, for instance, in Abolition Democracy 2/13, or of Michel Foucault in Foucault 6/13 and Foucault 7/13. Must one have a theory of history in order to sustain revolutionary fervor? And how do we reconcile the need for time stamped analyses with the very idea of a theory of history? This is, in part, where Amy Allen leaves us in her post—and will be one of several excellent points of departure for our collective discussion.

Welcome to Revolution 5/13!


[1] 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), 102.

[2] Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, 106.

[3] Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, 106.

[4] Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, 115.

[5] Rosa Luxemburg, Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism (New York: Routledge, 2003 [1913]), 365.

[6] Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, 466-67.