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
As a first approach, then, let us consider a few examples which cearly show the unhappy role which Luxemburg has been cast to play in socialist writing. In a recent critique of Luk`cs, Gareth Stedman Jones finds in his early work ‘a restatement of the old Luxemburgist and anarcho-syndicalist couplet, economism/spontaneism’, though Luxemburg is credited with a ‘more sophisticated version’ of this than is offered by Luk`cs. The grounds for comparison with Luxemburg are Luk`cs’ belief in the final economic collapse of capitalism that ushers in the socialist revolution and his attribution of the emergence of proletarian consciousness to the advent of full-scale economic crisis.
Lucio Magri, in a discussion of the revolutionary party, explains Luxemburg’s ‘spontaneist vision’ by reference to the same kinds of view, though he finds it ‘astonishing’ that she should have had this vision since several other of her views contradict it. What is actually astonishing in Magri’s case is the argument said by him definitively to separate Lenin from spontaneism: ‘The passage from capitalism to socialism was never for him an inevitable process, a fatality dictated by the objective forces of development within capitalist society. On the contrary, he argued that . . . in their spontaneous development they would merely lead to a crisis of civilization, a new Dark Age.’
This argument is Rosa Luxemburg’s. Ernest Mandel, discussing the Leninist theory of organization, and basing himself not on the theory of capitalist collapse but on a single sentence from her polemic against Lenin in 1904, attributes to Luxemburg a conception according to which experience in struggle, in mass actions, is sufficient for the achievement of an adequate class consciousness and of the proletariat’s