Rosa Luxemburg: Reform versus Revolution

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[Quotes and Insights #21]

Thanks to Luna17 for reminding us of this brilliant passage from the woman Lenin described as one of the  “outstanding representatives of the revolutionary proletariat and of unfalsified Marxism.”

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

Every legal constitution is the product of a revolution. In the history of classes, revolution is the act of political creation, while legislation is the political expression of the life of a society that has already come into being.

Work for reform does not contain its own force independent from revolution. During every historic period, work for reforms is carried on only in the direction given to it by the impetus of the last revolution and continues as long as the impulsion from the last revolution continues to make itself felt. Or, to put it more concretely, in each historic period work for reforms is carried on only in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution. Here is the kernel of the problem.

It is contrary to history to represent work for reforms as a long-drawn out revolution and revolution as a condensed series of reforms. A social transformation and a legislative reform do not differ according to their duration but according to their content. The secret of historic change through the utilisation of political power resides precisely in the transformation of simple quantitative modification into a new quality, or to speak more concretely, in the passage of an historic period from one given form of society to another.

That is why people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.

If we follow the political conceptions of revisionism, we arrive at the same conclusion that is reached when we follow the economic theories of revisionism. Our program becomes not the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism; not the suppression of the wage labour system but the diminution of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of suppression of capitalism itself.

–Rosa, Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, (1900  ) Chapter 8

1 Comment

  • A half century before Rosa Luxemburg wrote ‘Reformism or Revolution?’, it had been aptly stated in the Communist Manifesto that:
    ‘ The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole of the bourgeoisie.’

    Coincidentally, in the same year that Luxemburg published her work, a number of trade unions in Britain were overseeing the establishment of a Labour Representation Committee which, in 1910 became the Labour Party.
    Largely funded by the industrial unions, it sought to represent the interests of the working class by replacing the Liberal Party as the ‘progressive’ pillar of the modern state of the United Kingdom, as against its ‘aggressive‘ pillar, the Conservative Party.

    The legal constitution of the UK resulted from a bourgeois revolution that accommodated itself to certain aspects of the old feudal society as well as to the outgoing ruling class, and the legislation it has enacted up to the present day has certainly been “the political expression of the life of a society that has already come into being.”

    From 1910, it took 35 years before the Labour Party managed to garner sufficient votes to oust the Liberal Party and take its place in the new Conservative-Labour governmental coalition of the United Kingdom.

    Since that time, the Labour Party has demonstrated only too well Luxemburg’s contention that:
    “ … in each historic period work for reforms is carried on only in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution. That is the kernel of the problem.”

    The product of a inherently reformist, trade union movement, the Labour Party in power settled for chauvinist reformism and post-war welfare that had become possible within the context of a leading imperialist state.

    For the British working class, the Labour Party had chosen “a more tranquil, calmer and slower road” to ‘socialism’ within capitalism in Britain, a road that involved the oppression of the working classes of other countries, a road that eventually led to 30 years of neoliberal, globalist imperialism in which the Labour party has played a leading role both nationally and internationally.

    In Britain, that is “the kernel of our particular problem.”

    To begin solving our particular problem, it is necessary once again, not only to clarify the distinction between the revolutionary and the reformist in the Labour movement, it is also necessary to clarify that distinction in the Communist and Green movements.