In an essay which she wrote in 1903 (‘Progress and Stagnation in Marxism’), Rosa Luxemburg showed how certain of Marx’s texts are discovered or forgotten according to the stage of the struggle of the proletariat. The same analysis may be applied to her own political and theoretical legacy: in my view, there is a direct relationship between the period through which we have been living since the sixties—a period characterized by a new rise of revolutionary struggle on a European and world scale—and the emergence or reappearance of Rosa Luxemburg on the intellectual and political arena of the workers’ movement. The events of 1968 in France and 1968–9 in Italy, and those occurring on the Iberian peninsula since 1974, cannot but reawaken interest in the problematic of the mass strike and the revolutionary crisis; at the same time, the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the Polish events of 1968–70 have with notable sharpness replaced the question of proletarian democracy at the centre of attention. The rebirth of Rosa Luxemburg, the rediscovery of her work, is a result of this very history of the second half of the twentieth century and constitutes one of the most significant and promising signs at the level of theory of a new world development whose extent and limits we as yet poorly grasp.

This then is the global framework which enables us to understand the numerous editions, reprints and translations of Luxemburg’s writings—from Japan to Italy, from England to Mexico, from France to Poland—as well as the countless essays, articles, biographical or theoretical studies devoted to her life and work that have appeared during the last ten years. One of the most interesting manifestations of this international phenomenon was the 1973 Reggio Emilia conference on Luxemburg, organized on the initiative of Lelio Basso, which gathered together in a passionate and fraternal debate several hundred Marxist university teachers and militants from a variety of countries and tendencies.

In the huge and uneven body of writings on Rosa Luxemburg that has been published since the mid-sixties, genuine analysis of the highest quality may be found alongside the worst confusion and arbitrariness. While some writers mount a full-scale hunt for ‘Luxemburgist deviations’, others use every means to convert Rosa Luxemburg’s work into an ideological weapon against Bolshevism. In many cases, however, interesting and fruitful attempts have been made to re-establish the authentic revolutionary dimension of her political legacy. Amongst works of this latter category, Norman Geras’s book will figure henceforth as one of the most important, and certainly as the best to have appeared in English.footnote1 It is distinguished not only by a remarkable theoretical profundity, but also by an outstanding intellectual rigour; above all, Geras does not approach Luxemburg from an ‘academic’ standpoint, but consistently grasps the actuality of her thought—its significance for the revolutionary struggle for socialism today. In this sense the book may be considered as the perfect ‘anti-Nettl’. Unlike that monumental academic biography, whose author diligently amassed a huge quantity of information on Luxemburg whilst formulating assessments which demonstrate his totally external relation to the problems of socialism and the working-class movement (and at times ‘a failure of perception bordering on the fantastic’—Geras, p. 25), The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg places itself firmly within a revolutionary perspective and, although expressing certain criticisms and reservations, seeks to draw out of Luxemburg’s work those political themes of greatest importance for our own epoch.

The first essay of the book (‘Barbarism and the Collapse of Capitalism’) is also perhaps the richest in content. Geras analyses the political and theoretical implications of the slogan ‘socialism or barbarism’ as an ‘affirmation of a historical alternative, of an outcome still to be decided and in genuine doubt’ (p. 22). He shows that, contrary to customary interpretations, there is absolutely no contradiction between this slogan and the thesis of the inevitable collapse of capitalism (developed above all in The Accumulation of Capital). The catastrophic crisis of capitalism, which is rooted in its internal contradictions, evokes a process of ‘return to barbarism’; but it remains an open question whether this process will be drawn out to its ultimate conclusion or whether it will be cut short at an early stage by the conscious revolutionary intervention of the working class. Geras rightly criticizes Luxemburg’s theory of the inevitable collapse of capitalism, but he stresses at the same time that there is a rational kernel to this thesis: the development of capitalism gives rise to a growth not only of the productive forces but also of forms of modern barbarism at a high scientific and technical level—‘gas chambers, nuclear weapons and napalm, “scientific” methods of interrogation and torture, the free fire zone and the strategic hamlet’ (p. 41).

Geras brings out the methodological importance of the formulation ‘socialism or barbarism’ as the coherent basis of a revolutionary Marxism freed from economism and fatalism. Here he discusses an article of my own on Luxemburg, and corrects a number of errors that I made.footnote2 In particular, he refutes with the aid of quotations my argument that the idea of the ‘inevitable’ victory of socialism disappears from Rosa Luxemburg’s writings after 1915. However, he concludes from this that there is no ‘break’ in her thought on this question, but rather a fundamental continuity from the turn of the century until her death in 1919.

It seems to me, however, that after 1914–15 the theoretical problematic of Rosa Luxemburg underwent a profound change under the impact of the war and the collapse of the International. It is only after this watershed that she began to talk of a historical alternative: socialism or barbarism. According to Geras, ‘in Luxemburg’s writings before the First World War there is no shortage of formulations which play the same role as the slogan “socialism or barbarism”, by insisting that the conscious political action of the proletariat is indispensable to the creation of socialism’ (p. 30); but to say that the conscious action of the proletariat is indispensable does not mean that it is not inevitable. The pre-1914 formulations do not play the same role as ‘socialism or barbarism’, since they do not present an open alternative for the future. For example, the passage from ‘Reform or Revolution’ which Geras quotes in this context stresses that socialism will be the result not only of ‘the growing contradictions of capitalist economy’, but also of ‘the increased organization and consciousness of the proletarian class, which constitutes the active factor in the coming revolution’. In that Luxemburg regarded ‘the increased organization and consciousness of the proletariat’ as a necessary and inevitable consequence of ‘the growing contradictions of capitalism’, this passage does not at all have the same function and methodological significance as the slogan ‘socialism or barbarism’.

Furthermore, the identification which Geras uncovers between the collapse of capitalism and barbarism (pp 32–5) becomes apparent in Luxemburg’s writings only after 1914. Before the war she spoke of catastrophic crises, violent contortions and convulsions and so on, but it was only in post–1914 texts (the ‘Anti-Critique’, ‘What is Economics?’) that this collapse was assimilated to barbarism, the decline of civilization and the ruin of human society.