100 Years of Rosa Luxemburg’s Marxism: Imperialism, Democracy and Lessons for the South African Left

A Talk at Wits University by Gunnett Kaaf, 07 March 2019

It is now 100 years since Rosa Luxemburg, together with Karl Liebknecht, was murdered by the German mercenaries. Rosa Luxemburg was certainly no less than a giant, both as a revolutionary and an intellectual. As Mary-Alice Waters points out, Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1871, a few days before the Paris Commune was proclaimed by French workers.  She died a little more than a year later after the Bolsheviks came to power in the Great October Russian Revolution.  Her life thus spanned a great historical epoch, the five decades which opened with the first dress rehearsal for socialist revolution in France, and closed as a new era in the history of mankind was being born in Russia.

Throughout her life -from her political awakening as a schoolgirl in Warsaw until her murder in Berlin 1919- Rosa Luxemburg dedicated her immense energies, talents, capacities and intellectual prowess to the goal of the world socialist revolution. Rosa understood that the stakes were high, that the fate of humanity was at stake and, as a woman of action, she gave herself completely to the great historic battle for the emancipation of humanity.

Rosa is certainly a product of her times, but because she was such a great revolutionary and a great intellectual, she had talent to act and look way into the future, instead of being consumed by immediate demands of her times. That’s why her actions continue to have resonance, that’s why her ideas remain relevant, 100 years after she was murdered.

Imperialism and democracy are certainly the two big areas Rosa made some invaluable contributions. That’s why I agree with the apt formulation of the organisers of this seminar for the topic of discussions: “100 Years of Rosa Luxemburg’s Marxism: Imperialism, Democracy and Lessons for the South African Left”.

But again imperialism and democracy were very important in Rosa’s time because of the capitalist crisis that led to the capture of democratic institutions by bourgeois forces and the rise of fascism and imperialism. Today we see history repeating itself with the deepening crisis of global capitalism, that began in the 1970’s, after the post-World War II growth cycle got exhausted and slipped into downturn of stagnation, and reached its apogee with the 2008/09 Great Recession that has now turned into a Long Depression, as Michael Roberts and other economists (from both mainstream and heterodox persuasions) appropriately call it.

Democracy has a significance, today, that is not dissimilar to Rosa’s time. In Rosa’s time there was a crisis of democracy following the defeat of European radical socialists (who went by the name Social Democracy) and the bourgeois capture of institutions of democracy and the threat of fascism that fully developed in the interwar years after Rosa’s murder. Actually, it can be argued that Rosa was murdered by, or in collaboration with fascists in their infancy stage. Today, democracy as practiced in official political systems of the global north and global south is in crisis, a crisis of the liberal establishment and its neoliberal policies. In the north, the liberal establishment is tumbling and falling apart, and has transformed the liberal census democracy into a democratic fraud that is in a state of decay. That’s why you have a rightwing buffoon such as Trump as the US president, and a right-winger Macron in France.

In the global south, formal democracy has tended to be a caricature of a democracy as practised in the north, with its features of a democratic fraud. This democracy is largely limited to a representative democracy, with very little meaningful participatory democracy, if any. That’s why in Africa democracy has been fraught with manipulations by former liberation movement parties and other right wing parties. That’s why in Brazil there was a ‘legal’ coup d’état, followed by an election of a buffoon right-wing president in Jair Bolsonaro.

But again, in both global north and south, we see the rise of fascism from the decay of formal democracies (both the liberal and its caricature forms). We have to reflect and analyse the rise of fascism today because, whilst it has similarities with the interwar fascism such as the deep crises of global capitalism as the context that sets the scene of this fascist development, there are divergences that come out of the fact that history always marches forward. Even in instances where history repeats itself, it never does so in returning cycles. The same applies to the crises of democracy and imperialisms as they manifested then and now.

So I will now discuss each of the three subjects, starting with imperialism, then democracy and conclude with the challenges for the South African left.

Rosa Luxemburg’s Radical Concept of Imperialism     

There is obviously no time to delve deep into these three subjects. So I will just summarise.

Rosa Luxemburg’s concept of imperialism was deeply connected to her concept of capital accumulation. In turn her theory of capital accumulation was largely based on her crisis theory of capitalism. Rosa’s main proposition was that capitalism, as a closed system, produces more than its available capacity for consumption. That is, capitalism has a problem of underconsumption or overproduction. She largely based this on the fact that workers’ wages are lower than the value of the products they produce, this therefore creates problems for the realisation of surplus value.

Rosa’s major economic theory is laid out in her 1913 seminal book, The Accumulation of Capital. Those who think of Rosa as an economist, they like to refer to this work as Rosa’s magnum opus. Marx’s accumulation schema as outlined in Capital was incomplete as it had a shortfall in capital accumulation that it did not address. Rosa’s acknowledged that Marx’s research work on Capital was incomplete, and that probably explained the shortfall in Marx’s accumulation theory. Remember Marx’s initial plan was to have 6 volumes of Capital: volume one on the general mode of capitalist production, volume two on landed property, volume three on wage labour, volume four on the State, volume five on international trade, and volume six on world market and crises (see Ernest Mandel’s introduction in Capital Volume One, Penguin Classics, 1990). Only volume one was published during Marx’s life time in 1867, volume two and three were published posthumously by Frederick Engels.

The three volumes Marx completed indicate an incomplete work and they were different from the initial research agenda. Volume one dealt with the general mode of capitalist development, volume two dealt with circulation and volume three dealt with the crisis theory Theories of Surplus Value which was published by Karl Kautsky is sometimes regarded as volume four.        

Rosa thought there is shortfall in Marx’s schema of capital accumulation in a closed capitalist system, that is, in accounting for the national output made up of constant capital, variable capital and surplus value. This is because workers earn lower than what they produce, thus there is a shortfall in realizing the surplus value, and this creates an imbalance between production and consumption. Using both the simple and expanded accumulation models, she could only account for both constant and variable capital that could be maintained and expanded. But then she struggled, still using Marx’s method, to explain and account for the ongoing realisation of the surplus value, since workers earned lower than what they produce, because in effect they are exploited to produce the surplus value.

Even after she included the consumption expenditure by capital, there was still a shortfall in the overall consumption because of lower workers’ wages (See Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, first published in 1942). To cover for this shortfall, Rosa thought of the world market, to integrate non-capitalist or backward societies in a dependent way, as a solution. That’s the nucleus of her imperialism theory. It also included imperial rivalries, hence it has military expenditure. Wars, revolutions and instability in the world economy had gained prominence during Rosa’s time.

I will not go into the controversies that her accumulation theory provoked within Marxist intellectual circles. It suffices to remark though that Rosa did not just popularise Marx’s work, she developed it further, instead of merely stopping at Marx’s conclusions. She therefore made a meaningful contribution in Marxist economic theory, particularly in the age of monopoly capitalism.

Rosa’s views on imperialism put her on the side of the peoples of global south in the polarised global capitalist system that is predicated on accumulation of the countries of the north by dispossessing countries of the global south. She also advances an internationalist solidarity between workers of the global north and those of the global south. That’s why she was among few socialists from the west who did not support either of the sides in the South African Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. She denounced the Anglo-Boer War as an imperialist war. Her economic views about the global expansion of capitalism- accumulation crises, lack of effective demand (underconsumption or overproduction), the monopolies, increasing role of finance, stagnation – have dominated most of the post-World War II era economic debates, and into the 21st century. These issues have been taken up by prominent economists such as Michal Kaleki on his theories of business cycles and demand, John Maynard Keynes on effective demand, Joan Robinson who was a leftist  Keynesian , Josef Steindl on stagnation in mature capitalist countries, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy on monopoly capital.

Rosa was disappointed with the lack of support and enthusiasm about the Russian Revolution from the Western Europe workers movement. She attributed this to the loss of revolutionary initiative by the workers in the West, following the bourgeois capitulation by Social Democratic parties in support of the First World War.

Rosa denounced colonialisation completely, and never saw it as having a civilizing dimension like many European socialists who had succumbed to a Eurocentric world view. That’s why she condemned the Anglo-Boer War as an imperialist war when many European socialists sided with Britain as an advanced capitalist country that would help SA on the path of capitalist development. The socialist strategy of the Second International was trapped in a stages theory of bourgeois economism that proposed that countries must first acquire capitalist development before they proceed to socialist revolution stage.    

Rosa Luxemburg and Democracy

On democracy, Rosa’s views take forward Marx’s position that socialism is essentially a revolution of the majority by the majority for a radical social change. In this sense, Rosa was the foremost leading advocate of democratic forms of workers organisation and popular struggles in her generation of theoreticians and revolutionaries.

In the quote that follows, Rosa explains the dialectic of mass struggles in a capitalist reality, in pursuit of a socialist vision: “The international movement of the proletariat toward its complete emancipation is a process peculiar in the following respect. For the first time in the history of civilization, the people are expressing their will consciously and in opposition to all ruling classes. But this will can only be satisfied beyond the limits of the existing system.

Now the mass can only acquire and strengthen this will in the course of day-to-day struggle against the existing social order – that is, within the limits of capitalist society.

On the one hand, we have the mass; on the other, its historic goal, located outside of existing society. On one had, we have the day-to-day struggle; on the other, the social revolution. Such are the terms of the dialectic contradiction through which the socialist movement makes its way.”

That’s why she opposed some Leninist views which promoted vanguardism in ways that paved a way to Stalinism. She asserted the right of all to freedom of opinion and freedom of speech. She asserted these as universal freedoms that must be defended.

 Rosa did not only expose the dangers of Leninism with regard to restricting democratic mass participation, but also criticized harshly the illusions of bourgeois reformism and revisionism that were dominant in the Second International (See Rosa’s polemic with Eduard Bernstein in Reform or Revolution).

History has vindicated Rosa on the failure of centralised left parities, and her support for mass movements, with mass initiative and organisation, has won the day for a genuine left renewal.

She was apt when she said the following, and it continues to resonate: “The working class demands the right to make mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history. Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”

 Towards a left renewal: Lessons for the South African Left 

South Africa is undoubtedly in the throes of a deepening political and social crisis since 1994.It is a crisis of a crisis of politics; poor governance, corruption and a lack of a development strategy. It is an economic crisis of stagnation, mass unemployment, and widespread poverty. It is a crisis of development, manifesting in worsening township and rural underdevelopment. It is an ecological crisis in which natural resources get depleted and nature is destroyed in a manner that threatens the survival of human life on earth as we can see worsening trends on climate as a result of global warming. Whilst the South African crisis has its roots in local conditions, it is also part of the global crisis of capitalism that got worse with the 2008/2009 Great Recession, and refuses to go away. 

Two big outcomes seem possible from this deepening crisis: a resulting decadence or a responsive radical social transformation. There is no third way, for as long as the crisis is not halted and reversed, we are headed for the worst.  It is as if Rosa Luxemburg’s quip that its either “socialism or barbarism” is coming to bear.

Only a meaningful social transformation can really save South Africa. This means a genuine renewal of the left in South Africa as a social force for a meaningful social transformation. This will take enormous efforts because the left is very weak, as we speak. The left has no presence in mainstream electoral politics, even with the establishment of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party of NUMSA. Mass movements are generally weak with no coherence in advancing formidable anti-capitalist struggles. The SRWP is a nonstarter because it pursues the old model of communist parties that has failed. It has no concept or imagination of democratic forms of mass organisation and popular struggles from below.

South Africa’s political and social crisis is driven by two main factors: (1) lack of a meaningful social transformation by the ANC following the 1994 democratic breakthrough, and (2) the obscene corruption that is worsening in threatening proportions from the ANC decline. The effects of a lack of meaningful social transformation is widespread poverty, growing unemployment, deepening inequality and an environmental destruction. This is because of the neoliberal policy solutions that have in place since 1994, have not been able to resolve the structural faults in the economy and in social relations. Neoliberalism has not succeeded in addressing the apartheid legacies and the social problems flowing from the post-94 capitalist growth path.

Even after 2017 ANC Nasrec conference, with Ramophosa at the helm, there is no halting and reversing the crisis. There is no renewal that the ANC is pursuing. It is all the perpetuation of rot and crisis, albeit in a slower pace in comparison to the Zuma years. The ANC under Ramaphosa is better, but still lacks the minimum requirements to effect a meaningful renewal. We still see the intensification of the factionalist wars all the time in the ANC and in many state institutions. The Robert McBride saga is the latest manifestation of these factionalist wars that illustrates that there is no renewal being pursued. McBride is being targeted (by refusing to renew his contract as head of IPID) for being the good guy who fearlessly fights malfeasance and corruption. 

The way forward for the left, out of the current political crisis, which is threatening to be a tragic impasse, is not to form a workers party or a vanguard party that will contest elections with a socialistic manifesto and hope to win or get some parliamentary seats. Any preoccupation with some centralised party of the left will be a serious distraction. Instead, the left must work with popular classes to build strong grassroots and sector movements that must fight for the  social demands of the popular classes on employment, living wage, sustainable livelihoods, health, education, food, women, youth, sports, arts, culture etc. Whilst those struggles should be about immediate social demands, they must have a clear anti-capitalist outlook and seek to go beyond the limits of the current capitalist society. Those struggles must express a yearning for a better society that is not capitalist.

This is not to lose sight of political power, but rather to build popular power on the ground, on whose base genuine left political alternatives should be advanced. Rebuilding new left alternative political pole should be based on mass struggles, mass movement and the vision of democratic eco-socialism. The mass political party or parties that must come out of such efforts should be nonvaguadist, open-ended and long-term, and linked to mass movements without controlling them.

Struggles for reforms in the here and now in order to ameliorate people’s conditions are going to be essential in building the long-term momentum for a genuine left renewal. These struggles should be based on advancing and extending the constitution, and other democratic rights and demands, including the regulation of the private sector.

Struggles for alternatives and transformation will be essential in grounding the left and mass movements in an anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal outlook. These should be on matters concerning development in townships and rural areas. These include such matters as seed banks, solidarity economy, public goods and services such as education, health, transport, housing, social wage, renewables and so on.

Popular struggles that must characterize the left renewal must be made up of both protests and developmental work. A range of community development activities should cover art, culture, media, including magazines, poetry cultural movements, people’s heritage from below, knowledge production from below that includes research, studies, publications of all types; audio and visual etc.

None of the above is possible without sustained activist development and political education in order to build a critical mass of conscious, confident capable and effective layer of activists who can carry out the massive tasks ahead.

Let me conclude by quoting Rosa’s words to her comrades just two weeks before her murder: “Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. Nay, more; not merely are we today in a position to perform this task, not merely is its performance a duty towards the proletariat, but our solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction.” These words are important in the context of the deepening crisis of global capitalism that is not going away, and thus posing a stark choice between “Barbarism or Socialism” as Rosa once quipped about the deep capitalist crisis that led to the two world wars in the 20th century.Kaaf is a Marxist activist based in Bloemfontein

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