TALK – Lucien van der Walt, 1997, “Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy,” First International Workers Film Festival

Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy: discussion for First International Workers Film Festival, Ster-Moribo, Carlton Centre, Johannesburg, September 19, 1997
Lucien van der Walt
Comrades, that was a very interesting film. Not just because of what it teaches us about the history of the revolutionary workers movement, and the struggle for socialism and freedom. But also because it helps us to think about the road we must take to socialism and workers power. Rosa’s ideas were revolutionary: not just anti-capitalist but anti-authoritarian. This  places her close to the libertarian socialism of Mikhail Bakunin and the anarcho-syndicalists.
Often we think of socialism as something that comes about through government, through electing leaders who will put in place the right policies. Of taking the land and factories and putting them under State control.
Rosa shows us a different vision of socialism. For Rosa socialism was not just something that took place through the State. It was not something which took place, from above, through a socialist party. Socialism was a process of self-emancipation by the working class. Rosa placed great emphasis on workers’ mass action as the road to socialism:
At a time that the working class must educate, organise and lead itself in the
course of the revolutionary struggle, when the revolution itself is directed not
only against the established state power but also against capitalist exploitation,
mass strikes appear as the natural method to mobilise the broadest possible levels
of the working class into action, to revolutionise and organise them.
Simultaneously, [the mass strike] is a method by means of which to undermine
and overthrow the established state power as well as curb capitalist exploitation.
… the working class must organise itself , … above all it must obliterate the
distinction between factories and workshops, mines and foundries which the
daily yoke of capitalism condemns itself to.
The trade unions in particular would be crucial forum for organising these revolutionary mass strikes. But Rosa knew that the struggle would have to sweep aside the conservative union officials. “Leaders who hang back”, she wrote, “would be pushed aside by the storming masses”.
Nor could the struggle be reduced to the organised workers in the unions. The whole working class– the millions upon millions of working and poor people– would have to be drawn into the mass strike:
The plan of undertaking mass strikes as a serious political class action with
organised workers only is absolutely hopeless. If the mass strike … and the mass
struggle are to be successful they must become a real peoples movement, that is
the widest sections of the proletariat must be drawn into the fight.
She rejected the idea that there should be distinction between political action, on the one hand, and mass economic action on the other.
There are not two different class struggles of the working class, an economic and
a political one, but only one class struggle, which aims at [both] the [struggle
against] capitalist exploitation [in the here and now], and at the abolition of
exploitation itself.
Rosa did not see socialism as coming about through parliament and a  socialist party winning election. You did need a socialist party — a political organisation of socialist revolutionaries —  but that party could only struggle to educate and mobilize the workers for socialism. Socialism itself could only come through a conscious struggle of the workers to end this capitalist system. It could not come through a socialist party seizing state power, especially if that socialist party was highly centralised and undemocratic.
Let us speak plainly, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are
infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.
In particular, she criticised Lenin and the Bolshevik’s for the notion of a highly centralised vanguard party to make the revolution:
[party democracy] cannot be based on the mechanical subordination and blind
obedience of the party membership to the leading party centre.
She warned that Lenin’s notion of the vanguard party would lay the basis for bureaucracy, and undermine the struggle for socialism:
Nothing will more surely enslave a young labour movement to an intellectual elite
hungry for power than this bureaucratic straitjacket, which will immobilise the
movement and turn it into a [robot] manipulated by a central committee.
She rejected the notion of socialism from above, and criticised Lenin and Trotsky for restricting workers democracy in the Russia revolution:
The [idea] underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of the dictatorship is … that the
socialist transformation is something for which a ready made formula lies
completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, and only needs to be carried
out in practice. This cannot be the case ….the whole mass of the people must take
part in [the building of socialism]. Otherwise socialism will be decreed from
behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals.
When Rosa was talking about the whole mass of the people being involved in building socialism, she did not mean that the people should be mobilised by a radical government, organised and herded by a red bureaucracy. Rather, she saw socialism as based on the activity of the mass of the people, on grassroots democracy.
Rosa Luxemburg, as I said earlier, is a treasure because here ideas help us rethink what we mean by socialism, and how we get to socialism. She does not take the road of the middle class intellectual, sitting in an ivory tower, and claiming that the working class has disappeared, and that socialism is not possible.
She does not take the road of the conservative nationalist, who thinks that freedom is the freedom to compete in the dog-eat-dog capitalist system, who calls for “trade unionism to be suspended for three years”1. Instead, she sees the mass organisations of the working class as the key to socialism.
She does not call for competitiveness, for free trade, for privatisation. No! She calls for mass action, workers solidarity, and the struggle to crush capitalism and build workers’ power.
As such, Rosa, although she called herself a Marxist, sits uneasily in the mainstream Marxist tradition, Communism, which has come to see socialism in terms of governments, political parties, elections. She fits into a broader anti-authoritarian socialist tradition, a tradition which goes back to the splits in the socialist
movement in the 1870s, and includes the anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist traditions.
It is this tradition which held out the possibility of self-managed workers power in Spain in 1936, a revolution so movingly shown in the film Land and Freedom 2. It is this tradition- termed “libertarian socialism” by the American radical Noam Chomsky- which holds the seeds for the renewal of socialism as a process of mass struggle and self-emancipation by the dispossessed billions of humanity- by all the victims of the capitalist/ State system.
1 The reference here is to a recent newspaper interview with Bishop Stanley Mogoba of the Pan-Africanist
Congress of Azania: see  here.
2 Although Land and Freedom downplays the role of the anarcho-syndicalists (the leading force in the Spanish Revolution) in favour of the Marxian POUM militia (an admirable and principled, but decidedly minority, grouping). 
All quotes from 
Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike (Bookmarks, 1986)
John Molyneux, Marxism and the Party (Bookmarks 1978). This book is, however, an unconvincing
attempt to assimilate Rosa to Bolshevism and thus Trotskyism.
N. Chomsky, “Notes on Anarchism”, in D. Guérin, Anarchism: from Theory to Practice (Monthly Review, 1971). Guérin’s book was (at this time) by far the best book on anarchism available in English:  you can read it here.

About Lucien van der Walt
I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).

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