‘Capitalism, by mightily furthering the development of the productive forces, and in virtue of its inherent contradictions, . . . provide(s) an excellent soil for the historical progress of society towards new economic and social forms.’ Rosa Luxemburgfootnote1.
‘No medicinal herbs can grow in the dirt of capitalist society which can help cure capitalist anarchy.’ Rosa Luxemburg.footnote2
‘In her work we see how the last flowering of capitalism is transformed into a ghastly dance of death.’ Georg Luk`cs.footnote3
Amongst the misconceptions by which Rosa Luxemburg’s thought has been deformed, the most widespread and tenacious is, without doubt, that which attributes to her a thesis going variously under the names of determinism, fatalism and spontaneism.
Any one of a number of her real or alleged views can be cited as the manifestation or consequence of this thesis: her emphasis on mass spontaneity; her underestimation of the importance of organization and of leadership; her belief that class consciousness is the simple and direct product of the class struggle of the masses. But what is generally regarded as its ultimate source and cited as definitive proof of its existence is her theory of capitalist breakdown, according to which the contradictions of capitalism must
Thus, it is one of the major and recurring themes of her interventions in the great revisionist controversy at the turn of the century. During the ‘Bernstein debate’ which took place at the Hanover Congress of the spd in 1899, she argued that it was precisely ‘the concept of a breakdown, of a social catastrophe . . . a cataclysm’ that distinguished Marxism from reformist gradualism. footnote5 The same point was emphasized in her most important work of the period, Social Reform or Revolution, in which the theory of capitalist collapse was said to be ‘the cornerstone of scientific socialism’ and its meaning spelled out in the following terms: ‘Capitalism, as a result of its own inner contradictions, moves toward a point when it will be unbalanced, when it will simply become impossible . . . the growing anarchy of capitalist economy lead(s) inevitably to its ruin.’ footnote6 All this was, of course, directed against the revisionist argument that capitalism had found, in such institutions as cartels, credit and democracy, the mechanisms of adaptation which, by mitigating capitalist contradictions, made revolution impossible and unnecessary. However, Luxemburg’s emphasis on inevitable capitalist breakdown cannot, on this account, be explained away as the result of polemical exaggeration on her part. A decade and a half later, in 1913, she published The Accumulation of Capital, her major contribution to Marxist political economy, and in it she tried to provide a rigorous theoretical foundation for the breakdown argument.
The central contention of that work, briefly stated, is that in a closed capitalist economy, consisting of only capitalists and workers and without contact with non-capitalist social formations, the realization and capitalization of surplus-value, and hence the accumulation of capital, are impossible. The accumulation process demands access to the markets and the products of a non-capitalist environment, but the very same process progressively deprives itself of that environment by eroding all non-capitalist strata and forms and bringing them under the sway of purely capitalist relations. As Luxemburg puts it, ‘capitalism needs non-capitalist social organizations as the setting for its development,
On the basis of it, and of an impermissible logical leap which simply equates the breakdown of capitalism with the creation of socialism, it is mere child’s play to construct a completely fatalist and allegedly Luxemburgist perspective on the revolutionary process. According to this, the laws of capitalist development inevitably issue in economic breakdown and socialist revolution, and the consequence and other face of this catastrophism is spontaneism, contempt for organization, contempt for leadership, and so on. The same inexorable economic laws which produce capitalist collapse also bring forth mass actions whose spontaneous power and dynamic are sufficient to solve all the political and tactical problems that arise. Taken strictly, this position amounts to the abolition of the need for theoretical work, for propaganda and agitation, for organization and for preparation for the conquest of political power. It amounts to the abolition, in short, of the political and ideological/theoretical dimensions of the struggle for socialism, since the activities (practices) specific to these are taken care of in the end by inexorable economic laws. The perspective, it is clear, is not only fatalist but also economist. That it was purveyed, as a representation of Luxemburg’s views, to the whole generation that witnessed the Stalinist destruction of revolutionary Marxism (and not only of that) is a fact which need not detain us for long. As early as 1925 it