Rosa Luxemburg — Karl Marx

In this obituary for the 30th anniversary of Karl Marx’s passing, Rosa Luxemburg reviews the history of the socialist movement and summarizes the key ideas and conceptions of Marxist thought.

Published in Leipziger Volkszeitung №60, 14th March, 1913.

It has been thirty years since the man, to whom the modern working class owes more than any mortal, closed his eyes for eternity. The work that Marx dedicated his life to can only properly be appreciated from a historical standpoint.

Socialism, as an ideal of a society built on equality and fraternity between people, is centuries old. Its fiery flare glows through all major social crises and revolutionary movements of the middle ages and modern periods as an expression of utmost radicalism, to reveal both the inescapable historical barrier and pique of these movements whence the regression, reaction and collapse had to inevitably occur.

However, socialism was an ideal that could be recommended at any time, at every historical stage of development and therefore, it was but a beautiful dream of occasional sporadic philanthropists [Menschenfreunde, lit. “friends of people”], unreachable like the airy light of a rainbow over a bank of clouds.

For the very first time, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, the idea of socialism emerged with strength and vigor as a response to the societal horrors and devastation that the emerging industrial capitalism brought with it. But even then, socialism was practically nothing but the glowing ideal of a social order which brave individuals formulated against the horrors of capitalist society. When we listen to Babeuf [1], the pioneer of the modern revolutionary proletariat, who wanted to arrange a coup de main to enforce communist order during the decline of the Great French Revolution, the only circumstance he bases himself on is the shrieking injustice of the contemporary social order. In his passionate articles, pamphlets and defense speech before the Revolutionary Tribunal, he tirelessly presents the existing social order in the darkest colors and castigates them with the harshest words. According to Babeuf, the fact that society was unjust and deserved to perish sufficed as a reason for its overthrow and abolition by a handful of determined people seizing power. Unfortunately, a coincidence and betrayal of a co-conspirator sufficed to drive Babeuf to the scaffold and his plan to failure. At first glance, Babeuf drowned in the reactionary storm like a swaying boat, without leaving any trace except a glowing in the annals of contemporary history.

Based are on the same foundations the socialist ideas, which Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen [2] represented with more cleverness and brilliance in the [18]20s and [18]30s. Of course, none of the three great thinkers suggested a revolutionary seizure of power as a way to realize socialism. On the contrary, they were outspoken proponents of peaceful propaganda. But regardless of their political differences from Babeuf and different ideas and details, the decisive knot of the fate of their socialisms was the same: the socialism of the Saint-Simonists, Fourierists and Owenists, like that of Babeuf, was was essentially just a project, the invention of a great mind who suggested it to the plagued mankind to survive the hell of bourgeois society. The critique that these three great utopians levied on the existing conditions was infinitely sharper, thorough, richer in ideas and observations, much more fecund and deadly than in Babeuf’s case.

A quarter of a century of unbridled capitalist industrial development gave social criticism rich source material that differed greatly from the one that could have been seen through the violent birth pangs of modern society during the Great [French] Revolution, of which Babeuf was an intellectual child. But this criticism too was practically an accusation against the existing social order, its assessment and condemnation from the standpoint of morality and reason. And that is precisely why all these socialist doctrines were up in the air. Since private property and class rule have existed, the social conditions have sinned against the abstract ideas of equality and fraternity, for millennia. Exploitation and subjugation dominated, flourished, grew and seemingly changed only in form with the advance of time, without a care for justice, reason, and all things likewise beautiful. The more thoroughly, the more extensively the great apostles of socialism developed the foundations and expanded the details of the new social order, the deeper they they touched upon the roots of the existing social order in their plans, their questions became all the more perilous: who could manage such a enormous upheaval, turn the whole world on its head and how? Neither Fourier, nor Saint-Simon, who only produced small sects, thought of or turned to the masses of the proletariat. And the influence of Owen, who was working on a rebirth of the proletarian masses, disappeared soon without a trace as well. There was essentially no connection between the main revolutionary uprisings of the proletariat in the [18]30s and [18]40s and socialist propaganda.

The nature of the matter did not change much when a new generation of socialist theorists emerged in the [18]40s; this time, in order to preach socialist gospel, Weitling in Germany, Proudhon, Louis Blanc, Blanqui [3] in France turned to the working class. For all of them, socialism remained a future plan which could be realized at any moment through conspiratorial political seizure of power by a dedicated revolutionary minority or specifically and cleverly created economic institutions with state aid, the cornerstone of which was the worthlessness of the existing social order.

The year 1848 tested the strength of all the various forms of past socialisms, while being the culmination of the spontaneous revolutionary uprisings of the proletarian masses. When the Parisian proletariat, stirred up in its broad strata by the idea of a just social order, the traditions of the earlier revolutionary struggles and the various socialist systems, used its position of power in the February Revolution to demand the implementation of a new “organization of labor”, and new “socialist republic” and gave the provisional government the famous deadline of “three months of hunger” to carry out these vague future projects, after months of patient waiting, the attempt ended in a terrible defeat for the proletariat. With the unforgettable June massacre, the idea of a “social republic” that could be realized at any time was drowned in the blood of the Parisian proletariat in order to make way for an unforeseen boom of capitalist rule under the Second Empire. With the ideal of the socialist order seemingly crushed and trampled once and for all through the shattered barricades of June 1848 and the mounds of corpses of the murdered Parisian proletarians, the hopelessness of socialism was proven to the whole world.

Around the same time that the socialism of old schools had suffered a definitive defeat, the socialist idea was already being placed on a completely new basis by Marx and Engels: The Communist Manifesto brought new tidings to the world of the exploited. Marx and Engels looked for bases for the socialist ideal neither in the moral reprehensibility of contemporary society, nor in devising a future project that was most compelling. They turned to the study of the economic conditions of civil society. Due to this, they discovered the point at which the lever of socialist upheaval could be pulled. Marx uncovered the real source of the exploitation and oppression of the proletariat in the laws of capitalist economy, which is inescapable as long as private property and wages exist. Here, however, he also discovered the laws of development of capitalist production, which, through their own iron logic, lead to a certain degree of maturity, making the downfall of capitalist rule and the realization of socialism inevitable, if society is not to approach its destruction. This was the first time that the socialist ideal was placed on a scientific basis and demonstrated as a historical necessity. Resulting from the same economic study, Marx and Engels also demonstrated that the modern wage laborers of all countries, the international working class, is historically compelled to carry out this great social upheaval as its own revolutionary act when the economic development of capitalism reaches the maturity necessary.

But with these epoch-defining ideas, which he put down in the Manifesto, in Capital, in numerous other writings, the work of Marx and his comrade is not exhausted. With the materialistic conception of history and its most fruitful part, the theory of the class struggle, Marx gave the proletariat an unmistakable guide for its daily struggles through the confusion of politics and deceptive mummery of the parties. People make their own history, but they don’t make it as they please. With these words, Marx referred the revolutionary working class to the objective social conditions of their actions, to what is historically possible, to which their striving is always bound. With this teaching, he also made it possible for the working class to adapt to the real interests, aspirations, paths and goals of its opponents, the bourgeois classes and parties. The ultimate goal, the daily struggle of the proletariat, the program and the tactics of socialism were placed on the iron pedestal of scientific knowledge for the very first time by Marx, thereby giving the overall movement of the international working class the stability, force and steadiness that make it the most powerful, unprecedented mass movement in world history.

The immortal merit of Marx and Engels also lies in having organized the first brave vanguard of this world historical mass movement by founding the International; in addition to the abundance of their theoretical teachings for the proletariat, they also created a brilliant practical pattern by which the exploited could learn to fight against a world, always looking at the main end goal and gathering strength for further battles from every defeat until the final, decisive victory.

If Marx and Engels united the proletarians of all countries, Lassalle [4] carried this flag forward as a collective symbol for a decisive political act of the German working class. If Marx left the principles of the class struggle as a scientific legacy to the international proletariat, Lassalle first separated the German proletariat as a class from bourgeois society politically and organized it for the revolutionary struggle. And if Marx had put an end to the old-style revolutionary machinations by saying that people make their own history, but they do not make it of their own accord, Lassalle emphasized the other way around, but with equal justification, revolutionary energy and determination by preaching to the German workers with fiery words: People do not make their history as they please, but they make it themselves!

This year, when the thirtieth anniversary of Marx’s death and for the hundredth time the hour of creating Lassallean agitation returns, the German working class has every reason to remember its three great masters, whose historical work cannot be separated from one another, with gratitude. The past decades have infinitely expanded our battlefield, increased our ranks a hundredfold, but also increased our tasks to monumental levels. The capitalist growth, which Marx studied and described in the [18]60s through English conditions, appears as a clumsy, sluggish immaturity, compared to current global rule of capital and the desperate attempts of its contemporary and final imperialist phase. And the last breath of life of the capitalist world, bourgeois liberalism, from whose senile hands Lassalle wrested the scepter of the leadership of the working class 50 years ago, appears as a kind of gargantuan titan compared to its decaying corpse today. The course of historical development has given brilliant testimony in all respects to the theoretical and political teachings of the masters of scientific socialism. And today, in the midst of the bloody delirium and convulsions of armed and genocidal imperialism, the hour is approaching more and more visibly when the closing words of Marx’s capital must be fulfilled:

“Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” [5]

Therefore, we need to combine in practice what those masters have left as treasured legacy, theoretical development in order to guide our daily struggles according to uniform principle and decisive revolutionary drive more than ever, so that the great time we are approaching does not find a small lineage in its hands.

Footnotes

[1] François-Noël Babeuf (called Gracchus) (1760–1797): French revolutionary; utopian communist; organizer of the 1796 Conspiracy of Equals; executed.

[2] Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825): French utopian socialist.

– Charles Fourier (1772–1837): French utopian socialist.

– Robert Owen (1771–1858): British utopian socialist.

[3] Wilhelm Weitling (1808–1871): tailor, leading member of the League of the Just; first German theorist of utopian workers’ communism; emigrated to the United States in 1849; approached the International Workingmen’s Association at the end of his life.

– Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865): French writer, sociologist and economist; utopian socialist who was a theoretical founder of anarchism.

– Louis Blanc (1811–1882): French journalist and historian; petit-bourgeois socialist; 1848 member of the provisional government; emigrated to England in August 1848; turned against the Paris Commune; member of the National Assembly of 1871.

– Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881): French revolutionary, utopian communist; organizer of several secret societies and conspiracies; active participant in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848; prisoner during the Paris Commune; important leader of the proletarian movement in France; spent a total of 36 years in prisons and penal colonies.

[4] Ferdinand Lassalle (1825–1864): writer; Worker agitator; took part in the revolution of 1848/49; since then known to Marx and Engels (correspondence until 1862); with the establishment of the General German Workers’ Association in May 1863, he organized the advanced workers separately from the liberal bourgeoisie; however, his hostility to the bourgeoisie led him to make an alliance with Bismarck; did not convey a clear revolutionary policy to the working class.

[5] Karl Marx — Capital, Volume I (MIA PDF version, p. 542)

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