From 1896 to 1898, Bernstein (who had been an exile in Switzerland and Britain under the anti-Socialist laws) wrote a series of articles for the party press titled “Problems of Socialism,” and in 1899 his book “Prerequisites of Socialism” was published. In English this book is better known as “Evolutionary Socialism.” From 1898 to 1900, Luxemburg responded to Bernstein in a series of articles collected under the title “Social Reform or Revolution.” In a speech she made to the SPD Stuttgart Congress on Oct. 4, 1898, she summarized the practical import of the theoretical battle:
“And then the well-known statement [by Bernstein] in the Neue Zeit [New Age]: ‘The final goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me; the movement is everything!’ … The conquest of political power remains the final goal and that final goal remains the soul of the struggle. The working class cannot take the decadent position of the philosophers: ‘The final goal is nothing to me, the movement is everything.’ No, on the contrary, without relating the movement to the final goal, the movement as an end in itself is nothing to me, the final goal is everything.”
No good cause is served by aggrandizing the reputation of Luxemburg, who stood both firm and fallible in life, or by the critical annihilation of Bernstein, an eminently decent man. Both Bernstein and Luxemburg paid attention to reality, and came to opposite conclusions about the relation between reforms and revolution. But Arendt was also surely correct in noting that one of Bernstein’s main convictions was “shamefully hidden in a footnote” of his book. In Bernstein’s own words, “I feel no hesitation in declaring that I consider the middle class—not excepting the German—in their bulk to be still fairly healthy, not only economically, but also morally.” Speaking of “the revolutionists from the East who led the attack on Bernstein—Plekhanov, Parvus, and Rosa Luxemburg,” Arendt wrote, “The guests from Eastern Europe were the only ones who not merely ‘believed’ in revolution as a theoretical necessity but wished to do something about it, precisely because they considered society as it was to be unbearable on moral grounds, on the grounds of justice.”
Though less famous, Luxemburg’s later criticism of the “orthodox” Marxism of Karl Kautsky, and of his “strategy of attrition,” was perhaps even more important. In this case, she was challenging a man who was regarded even by Russian revolutionaries as a venerable oracle of Marxist theory, and who had at first welcomed Luxemburg as a polemical ally against Bernstein. As Lenin and Trotsky later acknowledged, Luxemburg was the first to realize that Kautsky’s conception of Marxism was to a high degree in practical agreement with reformism, however much it was framed within a formally revolutionary theory. Already in 1906, Luxemburg defended and promoted the general strike. Kautsky argued against her views, yet they remained friends at this time. In the party press, their argument took on greater polemical heat. Kautsky also found Luxemburg’s calls for a German republic untimely. The general strike may be regarded as the more radical position, and the call for a republic as the more conservative: but that is a conventional view in retrospect. Fighting for a socialist republic by cumulative and class-conscious actions, including a general strike, is a thoroughly radical view, both then and now.
In an article of 1910, Luxemburg noted that Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program made specific mention of its omission of “a democratic republic,” and the only reason Marx urged caution in promoting a republic in Germany was (in Luxemburg’s words) “the advancing shadow of the oncoming Anti-Socialist Law.” Marx even pointed out the absurdity, in such circumstances, “of demanding things which only make sense in a democratic republic, from a state which is nothing but a military despotism embellished with parliamentary forms.” ... But the Anti-Socialist Law had lapsed in 1890, so Luxemburg demanded that Kautsky and other SPD leaders proceed with less caution and more courage. Otherwise the forces of reaction would continue making parliamentary provocations in preparation for practical measures against the working class. The ruling class was certainly class conscious, and able to unify its theory and practice. Therefore Luxemburg urged the leaders of the SPD to raise the demand for a republic as “the watchword of class struggle,” in both theory and practice, in labor strikes, in street protests and in electoral campaigns.
Luxemburg also quoted Engels’ critique of the Erfurt Program of 1891: “The draft’s demands have one great flaw. What actually should have been said is not there. ... First: If anything is certain, it is this: that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the great French Revolution has already shown.” In this respect, Luxemburg was hardly a “romantic” or a “Blanquist” conspirator, but a revolutionary republican in the tradition of Marx and Engels. She sharpened and focused the agitation for a republic by defending specific forms of working-class struggle, including councils of workers and the general strike.
In Los Angeles, every class-conscious worker cannot help but be aware of the sharpening attacks on workers, designed to fracture the whole labor movement along lines of race, sex, wage scales and disparate benefits. When those fractures follow the lines drawn upon maps of the world, then the great beast of nationalism comes round once again to devour our hearts and minds. Nationalism is bloody idol worship, a cult of the state and the military demanding regular theft of treasure beyond our borders, and regular human sacrifice of soldiers and civilians.
We who live in the country’s southwestern region know well that the United States ships loads of weapons south of the border, and that Mexico ships loads of drugs north of the border. This is one consequence of the hemispheric hurricane that bore the innocent-sounding title of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. This regional economic calamity was bound to cross borders, and so it did. When we fight the corporate state, then we also create the beginning of working-class justice on both sides of the border.
We know our financial system is a den of thieves, and President Barack Obama has filled his Cabinet and inner circle with Wall Street insiders and recycled Clintonistas. When we are likewise willing to acknowledge that our whole political system is broken—or rather, is expertly designed to maintain a corporate ruling class in the style to which it has grown accustomed—then we will find the strength to fight for democracy. This must begin with wide reformation of our rigged electoral system, which was designed to lock out all challengers of “the two-party system.” We can have “the two-party system” in this country or we can have democracy, but we cannot have both.
A journalist should strive to find the truth and tell it plainly, without favor or prejudice. But a democratic socialist doing any honest work whatsoever—whether as a writer, a plumber, a nurse, a firefighter—must go further than refusing to tell lies, or telling the truth in small doses likely to go down sweetly. The truth must be told plainly even and especially against our own failures in labor unions and in the socialist movement.
Free councils of workers are the foundation of democratic socialism. Start small and start now. Make each May Day a festival of solidarity, and a general strike against war and empire.