‘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. footnote4 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 lead, eventually, but also automatically and inevitably, to its complete collapse. Now, there are problems about the very meaning of this notion of final collapse and these will be taken up later on. For the moment it suffices to record that its attribution to Luxemburg is perfectly well founded, for the notion is integral to her thought.

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, (but) it proceeds by assimilating the very conditions which alone can ensure its own existence’. footnote7 The identification of this contradiction serves the double purpose of explaining the contemporary phenomenon of imperialism which is a ‘competitive struggle for what remains still open of the non-capitalist environment’, footnote8 and of specifying the economic limit or term of capitalist society. The relentless logic of her position is that the accumulation of capital, and the attempt, by imperialism, to secure for it the non-capitalist consumers and products which make it possible, must lead eventually to a situation of ‘exclusive and universal domination of capitalist production in all countries and for all branches of industry’. Once this happens, there is no non-capitalist environment left: ‘Accumulation must come to a stop. The realization and capitalization of surplus value become impossible to accomplish . . . the collapse of capitalism follows inevitably, as an objective historical necessity.’ footnote9 Now, it is true that even in The Accumulation of Capital, where Luxemburg says almost nothing about the concrete forms of proletarian class struggle, this catastrophist vision is tempered by the qualification that the limit of capitalist accumulation is a theoretical one, which will never actually be reached; the revolt of the international working class against the rule of capital will pre-empt it. footnote10 Despite this qualification however, it remains the case for her that capitalist society has a purely economic limit in the specific sense that the dynamics of capitalist accumulation must lead to a point where it becomes an impossibility, where, with or without the revolt of the working class, it must inevitably collapse. As we shall see, there is no evidence to suggest that Luxemburg ever abandoned this view.

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 was quite clearly formulated by Ruth Fischer, whose contribution to the ‘Bolshevization’, i.e. Stalinization, of the Comintern included the attempt to eradicate from the German Communist Party the ‘syphilis bacillus’ that she took Luxemburg’s influence to be: ‘Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of accumulation . . . is the fount of all errors, all theories of spontaneity, all erroneous conceptions of organizational problems.’ footnote11 What does require close attention, however, is the fact that though this kind of interpretation is the most grotesque caricature of Luxemburg’s views, as should be recognized by anyone with even passing familiarity with her work, it continues to lead a subterranean existence. It surfaces here and there with qualifications which are sometimes merely rhetorical and sometimes not, and it does so not only in contemporary socialist literature generally, but also in writing devoted specifically to the clarification of Luxemburg’s ideas—and even in the best of it. This indicates that the source of the misconception is located in a number of theoretical ambiguities and problems in her own work, and it can only be dispelled if these are resolved. At the same time, the attempt to resolve them is facilitated by a detailed scrutiny of the different forms of this misconception.