Updating Rosa Luxemburg


Internationalism, and the 20th Century Detour of Statist Socialism

Anyone interested in understanding the economic and social woes of the world today and looking for cures may be drawn to the work of Rosa Luxemburg. Her analysis of capitalism and imperialism at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century reads as if it was written today. Colonial conquest in her lifetime resembles today’s quest for resources and the concomitant dispossession of indigenous and other peoples on the margins of capitalist societies. Her analysis of the Russian revolution 1905 with its apparently spontaneous and uncoordinated insurrections and mass strikes all across the Tsarist Empire could easily be translated into a description of roaming unrest from Tahrir Square, to anti-austerity strikes in Southern Europe, and Occupy Wall Street protests. Her warnings about the bureaucratization of unions, social democratic parties and the Russian revolution 1917 speak to the anti-statist sentiments shared by many of today’s altermondialises and indignados.

Rosa Luxemburg’s economic and political work is timely for today’s activists, indeed. Not because she already wrote the scripts for current speeches, pamphlets, and leaflets but because the world today bears more resemblance with the world she knew than with the statist worlds so characteristic for much of the 20th century. And because she showed how to update a radical theory developed in an earlier period to understand her own times and draw strategic conclusions from that understanding. Just like it is tempting today to use her seemingly topical work without such updates it was tempting in her days to use Marx and Engels works from the 1840s to the early 1890s as blueprints for socialist politics in the early 20th century. Even though she insisted that she was defending orthodox Marxism against revisionists aiming at social reform and class compromise rather than the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, she was a revisionist of sorts herself. She did not hesitate to point at what she saw as weaknesses in Marx’ theoretical work and was very clear that capitalist development since Marx and Engels’ days required theoretical and strategic adjustments no matter how consistent, or inconsistent, they might have been earlier. Luxemburg’s work, as much as that of other radical thinkers of the past, can be used in a similar vein today; as a theoretical tool box, which may need refinement, to make sense of a world that has changed in many ways since those tools were invented but also one that bears many resemblances with that bygone past.

A 21st century update of Luxemburg’s analysis of capitalism and imperialism and the socialist strategy derived from it takes three steps. Step one recapitulates her understanding of the dialectics between the industrialization of the capitalist centres and the emergence of colonial hinterlands that included the making of industrial working classes in the centres and imperialist rivalry among the colonial powers. This history is relevant today because the imperial world that destroyed itself in two world wars and a major economic depression resurfaced as imperialism without colonies after World War II. It is also relevant because neoliberal policies since the 1980s led to an unmaking of the industrial working classes in the old capitalist centres and the making of new working classes in different parts of the word. Step two draws on Luxemburg’s theory of capitalist expansion into non-capitalist environments to understand the long post-war boom, which was the basis for Western welfare states and also served as a role model for Soviet communism and the developmental states of the post-colonial South. Her critique of bureaucratic tendencies among Western social democrats and Russian Bolsheviks proved prophetic and contributed to the political critique of statist socialism that New Left circles began to articulate in the 1960s. Yet, unlike most New Left theorists who didn’t have much interest in economics, the recourse to Luxemburg’s work allows us to understand the political and economic limits of statist socialism. Once these were reached in the 1970s a protracted period of class struggles began in all parts of the world, in which socialist alternatives beyond statism were defeated by the emerging powers of neoliberal capitalism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mainstay of statist socialism since the 1930s, this new form of capitalism went global. The rise and globalization of neoliberalism as much as its limits, marked by the bursting of the dot-com-bubble in 2001, unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession and a string of ensuing fiscal and debt crises, represent the final step of our Luxemburg update.

By and large, neoliberalism was a strategy of rolling back welfare and development states and finally a roadmap for capitalist penetration of the former Soviet Empire and China. The markets opened by this rollback pale compared to the long boom that followed World War II so that the neoliberal wave of accumulation looks more like a long downturn rather than a new prosperity. With the current crises, which began with the Great Recession 2008/9, a century of capitalist accumulation has gone full circle. It has created a global capitalism that is unable to penetrate further non-capitalist environments in order to restart accumulation, though such environments exist, and is thus confronted with intensified social and political conflicts. These objective conditions are very similar to those of 100 years ago but the subjective conditions are entirely different. A long process of class formation over the 19th century had created labour movements in all industrialized centres that were expected, by its supporters and adversaries alike, to play a major role in shaping future developments – which they certainly did. Eventually these movements were integrated into the statist socialisms emerging between the 1930s and 1950s but the working classes, which were their basis, were unravelled by the neoliberal restructuring of the global economy. As a result statist socialism could be defeated; it leaves behind a legacy of betrayed hopes, failures, and horrors and a global workforce that might be in the early stages of constituting itself as a class. When the colonial mode of capital accumulation reached its limits in the early 20th century, the designated gravediggers of capitalism were ready for battle though many of them fought each other under various national flags rather than holding up the red banner of international socialism. Their descendants turned from grave digging to reforming capitalism or executing 5-year-plans and the next generation lost its sense of class in the climate of neoliberal individualism. At the same time, capitalist enclosures in the post-colonial South turned millions of peasants into proletarians as happened in the old capitalist centres in the 19th century. It is possible that open struggles from Tahrir square to Occupy Wall Street are catalysts in the making of a global working class and international socialism for the 21st century but this is by no means certain. The updating of Luxemburg’s work is an attempt of making a theoretical contribution to such a new socialist project.

The Long 19th Century

All of Luxemburg’s writings attest to a deeply felt passion for the wretched of the earth. Yet, following Marx and Engels critique of utopian socialism, she, too, thought that good will wouldn’t be good enough to create a better world. She embraced Marx and Engels idea of scientific socialism enthusiastically. In ‘Social Reform or Revolution’ she writes:

“The scientific basis of socialism rests, as is well known, on three principal results of capitalist development. First, on the growing anarchy of capitalist economy, leading inevitably to its ruin. Second, on the progressive socialisation of the process of production, which creates the germs of the future social order. And third, on the increased organisation and consciousness of the proletarian class, which constitutes the active factor in the coming revolution.” 1

In the same work she discusses Eduard Bernstein’s, the leading revisionist theoretician, claim that the “credit system” and “new employers’ organizations”, namely cartels, would allow capitalist accumulation without crisis. 2 Yet, she argues, credit expansion accelerates accumulation during the boom while the ensuing credit crunch deepens the crisis later. In a similar vein she says that cartels overcome crisis tendencies by shutting down those parts of productive capacities that couldn’t be used profitably and interprets such behaviour, which is quite rational from an employer’s point of view, as equivalent to the “method which in another form is employed in crises.” 3 She also points at cartels efforts to maintain domestic profit rates by selling parts of their production at lower prices and profit rates abroad, efforts that lead to the “sharpening of competition abroad and an increased anarchy on the world market”. 4

The question of cartels, or the emergence of monopoly capitalism more broadly, soon became a major point of contention between social democrats and communists. Hilferding developed Bernstein’s argument that the transition from a great number of small competing firms to a handful of large companies allows enables economic planning so that crises could be avoided in the future in his ‘Finance Capital’ 5. He than expanded the theoretical arguments made in ‘Finance Capital’ into his political concept of organized capitalism, in which he suggested that collaboration between employers, unions, and the state as a means to overcome class conflict and the economic crises it can cause. 6 Tragically, it took two world wars, the Great Depression, and a series of most intense class struggle before some kind of organized capitalism, the Keynesian welfare state, became reality in the capitalist centres. The first decades of the 20th century, aptly called ‘The Age of Catastrophe’ by Eric Hobsbawm, 7 seemed to confirm Lenin’s, and, it should be added, Luxemburg’s, prognosis of escalating crises, class struggles, and war. Lenin built his theory of imperialism 8 on Hilferding’s theory of capitalism but gave it a decisive twist. Drawing on the proto-Keynesian theory of imperialism by John Hobson 9 according to which the uneven distribution of income leads to a lack of consumer demand at home that firms seek to compensate by conquering foreign markets, Lenin refuted Hilferding’s argument that political coordination could overcome crises of overproduction he presented imperialist rivalry as unavoidable. Where Hilferding detected plenty of room for class collaboration and economic prosperity, Lenin saw nothing but “parasitism and decay of capitalism”. 10 Thus, in direct opposition to Hilferding, Lenin understands the lack of domestic demand, and thus lingering crisis, as reason for international competition and conflict.

Coming from a different angle, Luxemburg arrived at similar conclusions. She didn’t show any interest in questions of cartelization and monopoly capitalism beyond rejecting Bernstein’s argument that these would help containing cyclical crisis caused by the uncoordinated nature of capitalist enterprises competing with each other. Her focus was on the transient “opening (…) new markets” and “increased difficulties of finding markets” in the long run. 11 These cursory remarks in ‘Social Reform and Revolution’ proved to be key points in her fully fledged theory on ‘The Accumulation of Capital’ 12. She identifies “continually increasing demand” 13 as the pivot of accumulation and discusses the question whether demand from workers and capitalists, i.e. the agents of capitalist production, would suffice to sell all consumer and investment goods produced under capitalist relations of production. Her conclusion is that “accumulation can only proceed precisely in so far as the demand outside I and II (the sectors producing consumer and investment goods, respectively) is rising.” 14 Where Hilferding looked at nothing but economic activity within the capitalist economy and Lenin was mostly interested in imperialist rivalry among colonial powers, Luxemburg explained that the penetration of non-capitalist environments creates demand so that accumulation within the capitalist economy could continue and that this process would stop once no further non-capitalist environments would be available. Contrary to Marx who understood the transformation of a non-capitalist economy into a capitalist one as a historical phase in the emergence of capitalist, which he called ‘original accumulation’ 15, Luxemburg sees this transformation as an ongoing process accompanying and enabling capitalist accumulation. She analyses this process of commodification 16 by looking at the introduction of commodity exchange into societies previously based on the principles of reciprocity and then the subjugation of commodity exchange to the imperatives of capital accumulation. 17 Credit, without which agents in non-capitalist environments wouldn’t have the purchasing power to buy from the capitalist economy, and military force are the means used to push the transformation of non-capitalist environments into the capitalist economy forward. 18 However, rather than creating a level playing field for capitalist competition, capitalist penetration of non-capitalist environments created a world that is deeply divided between industrial centres and colonial hinterlands. Capitals invested in textiles, coal, and steel expected enormous profits from selling their products to new colonies but neither had an interest in developing consumer markets in the capitalist centres, which would have required higher wages, nor building industries in the colonies that would have been competitors of already existing industries in the centres. Thus, colonial expansion leads to a “string of political and social disasters and convulsions (…) long before the process of destroying peasants’ property, the decline of handicraft and of the old domestic industries (…) had come to an end” 19 and also before industrializing the South and creating mass consumer markets in the North as happened later in the 20th century. The limits of capital accumulation are not determined by a “natural economic impasse” but by prevailing strategies of capital accumulation and the class struggles triggered by these strategies. These limits are economical since certain kinds of accumulation, e.g. colonizing the South in order to sell mass produced textiles and obtain raw materials, only open up certain non-capitalist environments but leave out others so that the overall size of potential markets is limits. At the same time, every kind of accumulation disrupts the lives of those subject to commodification and, to the degree that accumulation is built on competition for low wages and long hours, also those of the workers already subjected to capital rule. These dislocations lead to opposition between capitalists, workers, and newly colonized people. Where such opposition leads to open class struggles it can constitute political limits to accumulation that will either lead to capitalist decline, this was Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s correct prognosis in the early 20th century, but may also usher into a new wave of accumulation by opening up previously untouched non-capitalist environments as happened when the ‘Age of Catastrophe’ was followed by a ‘Golden Age’ 20 beginning in the 1950s. 21

If class struggle instead of ‘iron laws of accumulation’, let alone ‘invisible hands’, determine the course of capitalist development, including the possible limits of that development, the question of class formation needs to be addressed. Luxemburg didn’t develop systematic theory of class formation but her work is full with ideas about this issue. This is even true for ‘Accumulation of Capital’, which is usually seen as a work on abstract economic laws rather than class struggle. Yet, the second part of the book 22 points at the connections between capitalist development, class struggles, and the role of ideas in forming classes and their policies. On the face of it, all she does in this part is discussing economic controversies about the question whether capitalist accumulation is hampered by insufficient demand or not. Closer inspection shows, though, that more is going on in this part of ‘Accumulation of Capital’ than reviewing particular aspects of the history of economic thought. In fact, Luxemburg situates these debates in the context of the class struggles of their respective times. She also stresses the political implications of the various theories she scrutinizes. On the whole, her discussion give us a glimpse at how she understood the formation of capitalist and working classes and the development of their respective political strategies.

She presents Sismondi and Malthus 23, writing in the 1800s to 1820s, as theoreticians who understand, contrary to the arguments made by Say and Ricardo, that accumulation is constraint by a lack of efficient demand but can’t envision a society beyond capitalism. Thus, to fix capitalism’s problem of insufficient demand they suggest a return to feudalism or the imagined world of small property holders sharing a market rather than outcompeting each other. This, to use Marx and Engels term from the Communist Manifesto 24, ‘reactionary socialism’ corresponds with the experiences of popular classes who saw their moral economies destroyed while they were proletarianised. 25 Protest, like that of the Luddites, expressed discontent with the subjugation to capital rule but did not point at alternatives to it. 26

The next controversy Luxemburg reviews is between German economists Rodbertus and von Kirchmann. The former advanced his argument that low wages cause crises of underconsumption and that these could be prevented through state intervention after a series of economic crises between 1837 and 1847 and the 1848 revolution. More notably with respect to working class formation, though, is that the Chartist movement in England, striking silk weavers in Lyon, and burgeoning socialist circles and debates were first signs of an independent working class movement that rang the alarm bells, precipitously as the privilege of hindsight tells us, among Europe’s ruling classes. 27 Rodbertus calls for state intervention can therefore be understood as the beginnings of ruling class strategies aiming at the integration of the working class into the capitalist state and economy as a means to counter revolutionary efforts from below.

The third and final debate Luxemburg looked at in ‘Accumulation of Capital’ was fought between Narodniks and Marxists in Russia around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. 28 At that time, Western Europe had gone through the Great Depression from 1873 to 1896, the development of mass workers parties, most of them members of the Second International, and a wave of mass strikes. 29 At the time, Russian leftists argued over capitalist development and socialist strategy, though, capitalist growth had resumed and inspired the right wing of the labour movement to ponder the possibilities of everlasting prosperity and class collaboration. The question the Russians were debating was whether the country would have to go through the process of bourgeois revolution and capitalist industrialization like England and France had done before socialism could even be considered as a political goal, as Marxists like Tugan Baranovski argued, or whether Russia’s subordinate position in the world economy, which was dominated by the British Empire at the time, would make fully fledged capitalism impossible and therefore socialism a necessity before industries and industrial working classes had been fully developed. This was the position of the Narodniks around Vorontsov and Nikolayon. Luxemburg found that the Russian Marxists had joined the aspiring Russian bourgeoisie in their effort to establish the country as a great capitalist power alongside Britain, France, and Germany. Against such optimism she argued that the Narodniks were right in pointing at the limited possibilities of such a development but failed to see that Russia was integrated into the capitalist world system in a subordinate position. In that position the Russian bourgeoisies didn’t have the economic leeway that is required for the kind of welfare state building from above that Rodbertus had advocated and German chancellor Bismarck had begun to implement. The political implications of this analysis are clear: Unmitigated class antagonism created a revolutionary potential way ahead of anything existing in Western Europe. But revolution in Russia, because of the countries position in the capitalist world system, would also unsettle economies and societies in the West.

She had already advanced the idea of workers’ struggles in Russia inspiring struggles in Germany and other Western European countries in ‘Mass Strike, Party, and Trade Unions’ 30, her analysis of the Russian revolution of 1905. This is also the work in which her understanding of class formation as a learning process is most obvious. In great detail she shows how struggles in one part of the Tsarist empire initiated struggles in other parts and also how defeats of political movements trigger a shift of struggle to the economic terrain and vice versa. In another work, her posthumously published ‘Introduction to Economics’ 31, she explains the role of ideas in coalescing apparently unconnected struggles and experiences into class politics. More precisely, she explains that bourgeois economics, developed in highly abstracts tracts but widely disseminated through pamphlets, newspapers within the bourgeois public sphere 32, is an indispensible part of the making of a capitalist class including its own class consciousness. Marxism, she says, would play a similar role in working class formation. From scattered comments on the role of working class organizations throughout her work one might add that she ascribes a role to such organizations comparable to that played by the bourgeois public sphere for capitalist class formation. Luxemburg expected the clash between both parties to be near. The clash between rival imperialist powers, though clearly foreseen in ‘Accumulation of Capital’, took her by surprises. Though she was well aware of the shortcomings of bureaucratized labour organizations, she did not expect the total collapse of working class internationalism in the face of imperialist war. After it happened, it took her a while to fully comprehend the divisions between reformists who supported the war and revolutionaries who defied it. Yet, the analysis of the ‘Crisis in German Social Democracy’ 33, i.e. the collapse of the Second International and the subordination of national parties to their ruling classes war efforts, led her to reaffirm her view that collective experiences matter more in class struggles than the existence of large formal organizations.

Great Depression to Long Boom

World War I, revolutions and counter-revolutions after the war, the Great Depression and finally World War II confirmed Luxemburg’s prognosis that capitalist development would end up in “a string of political and social disasters and convulsions, and under these conditions, punctuated by periodical economic catastrophes or crises, accumulation can go on no longer” 34 in the most terrifying ways. She was also right, like Lenin and Trotsky, to expect a revolution in Russia and that this would trigger a revolution in the West. Yet, the failure of the revolutions in Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Austria left the Russian revolution isolated so that the bureaucratic tendencies that she had seen in Bolshevik tactics early on 35 could be raised to the level of Stalin’s reign of terror in the name of building socialism in one country. At the same time, failure of the revolution in the West opened the door for fascist counterrevolution while the capitalist world economy was shaken by a series of crises in the early 1920s and stuck in depression in the 1930s. 36 World War I led to a minor reshuffle of colonial possessions in Europe, left huge amounts of unpayable war debt but did not open any new markets. In the US, the creation of production capacities for consumer goods led to an investment boom that turned bust once it turned out the mass consumer market needed to put these new capacities to profitable use was still missing. The mélange of social instability, economic crises, unsettled imperialist accounts and the emerging conflict between the capitalist world and Soviet communism led to World War II 37, which had very paradoxical results. 38 On the one hand, it led to spreading of communism into Eastern Europe, just not, like Luxemburg and Lenin had expected, because of victorious revolutions in Eastern European countries but as a result of Soviet troops rolling Nazi armies back into Berlin. The spread of Soviet communism, together with the Chinese revolution 1949, diminished the size of the capitalist world market. On the other hand, the post-war period saw unprecedented economic growth and welfare state development. 39 The world social democratic revisionists like Bernstein and Hilferding had envisioned seemed to become true, Luxemburg’s gloom and doom views could apparently be relegated to the dustbin of history. In fact, Keynesianism, which became to signify the economic policies pursued during the long post-war boom, adopts the political concept of organized capitalism that Hilferding had developed before the Great Depression but replaces Hilferding’s analysis of the structural changes that happened during the emergence of monopoly capitalism with a macroeconomic theory that focuses on captialism’s notorious lack of effective demand. This is exactly the starting point for Luxemburg’s analysis of capital accumulation. But where she focused on the need of capitalist penetration of non-capitalist environments to generate demand that can keep accumulation going, Keynes argued investment demand wouldn’t necessarily match available savings and that savings not used by the private sector could be mobilized by the state through its fiscal and monetary policies. As a result aggregate demand would equal aggregate supply and employment could be stabilized at a high level. However, Keynes anti-cyclical policies didn’t address the question of long-term growth and the Keynesian growth models developed by Harrod 40 and Domar 41 derived the conditions under which growth could continue but didn’t explain the sources of long-term growth of demand.

Ironically, Luxemburg’s theory, developed to understand long-term growth in the long 19th century, can be applied to the long post-war boom in the 20th century. This boom rested on three pillars: Mass consumption in the West, the industrialization of the South, and the Cold War arms economy. In one way or another all three were part of the capitalist penetration of non-capitalist environments. The arms economy 42 was part of the containment of Soviet or any other form of communism, thus securing the geographical terrain, in which capitalism could expand. The industrialization of the South transformed post-colonial states whose economies were marked by sprinklings of capitalism in non-capitalist hinterlands under colonial rule. Mass consumption, finally, can be considered as ‘Colonization of the Lifeworlds’ 43 of Western, albeit to a significantly lower degree, Southern societies.

Frankfurt School theorists from Adorno and Horkheimer to Habermas analyzed the capitalist penetration of previously autonomous private spheres, with respect to the working class one might as well say the moral economies that had developed as part of a distinct working class culture with union halls, dances, sports events etc., as a mechanism of integrating previously autonomous working classes into the capitalist system. And while the colonization of workers lifeworlds might have been motivated by capitalists wish to diminish the power of autonomous working class movements, it was also driven by the realization how many mass produced consumer goods could be sold to working class households since Taylorism had shown a way to expand the scale of production without increasing unit labour costs. 44 Whereas 19th capitalists were mostly interested in building a logistical infrastructure in the colonies and exporting textiles, the only mass consumer good at the time, and import raw materials and agricultural goods, consumer good industries in the 20th century sold their products mostly to domestic middle and working class customers in exchange for increasing supplies of labour. This is particularly true for women who had been part of the labour force during the war and were pushed out of it after the war. 45 Yet, they came back as soon as labour-saving household technologies like washers and refrigerators reduced the time that was needed to perform tasks deemed as the households’ responsibility at the time. Along with immigrant and ethnic minority workers, women would work in the lower segments of the capitalist labour market but also fill the ranks of growing public sector employment.

Public sector expansion, along with welfare state development more generally, points at an interesting dialectic of the postwar marriage between statism and capitalism. The latter benefited greatly from the colonization of working class households due to increasing consumer goods sales and the commodication of work previously done in private households. At the same time, the welfare state allowed a certain de-commidification of labour 46, which also meant increasing bargaining power for workers who had jobs. Ignoring the capitalist penetration of lifeworlds, which is so obvious from a Luxemburgian perspective, conservatives and social democrats were puzzled by the rise of the welfare state that was so different from 19th capitalism and its crises during the ‘Age of Catastrophe’. The former saw it an alternative road to serfdom 47, bound to eventually converge with Soviet communism, while the latter praised it as the nucleus of democratic socialism 48 that might fully replace capitalism and Soviet communism one day. Both expectations proved to be wrong later. Yet, with a doubt, the ‘Age of Catastrophe’ had changed social and political conditions in such a way that non-capitalist environments that leading factions of 19th century bourgeoisies were not interested in penetrating could be penetrated by their 20th century successors. Arms production during the two world wars had led to a proliferation of Taylorist methods of mass production. Industries equipped with machines suitable to these methods could also be used to make cheap and standardized consumer goods. The taste to allow rising living standards for workers, some of them at least, had also considerably grown since capitalists feared that otherwise workers might flock to Soviet communism that had established itself as a contender for world power in World War II. However, the willingness to accept Keynesian policies 49, collective bargaining and welfare state development was also reliant on the opening of new markets without which higher real wages and welfare state spending would have caused an unacceptable profit squeeze.

The centre of post-war capitalism was the US 50. It had taken the lead in developing mass production and mass consumption and propagating this model for other countries to follow. It also had the power to merge colonial powers into an anti-communist bloc. Part of Cold War competition between the capitalist West and the communist East was the struggle for influence in the post-colonial South where the Soviets, and the Chinese, it should be added, presented themselves as defenders and promoters of the anti-colonial revolution while the West propagated the American Way of life, which, supposedly could be achieved after a period of industrialization and catching-up to Western economic benchmarks. To the degree industrialization happened in the South, it also created investment opportunities for Western corporation who quickly discovered they could not only sell machinery to aspiring developmental states, often aided by international loans 51, but also relocate production to low-wage countries to keep aspiring unionists at home in check. 52 Anti-communism, an indispensable part of the Cold War in general but also of welfare state development in particular, served the same purpose. It allowed to denounce militant unionists and left-wing social democrats, precisely the ones striving for the gradual transformation of capitalist welfare states into one kind of socialism or another, as Soviet sympathizers who actually threaten the hard-won riches in the West. Moreover, the Cold War arms race created a permanent outlet for capital investments for which no other profitable use could be found. Militarism became a lucrative and permanent ‘province of accumulation’ 53 in the West and tied economic resources in the East, which, contrary to the West wasn’t plagued by overcapacities but by a shortage of production capacity.

The Soviets had experimented with Taylorism already in the 1920s and fully adopted it during the industrialization in the 1930s. 54 Thus, despite different forms of ownership, Soviet catch-up growth at that time fit pretty much in the growth strategies the West presented as role models for post-colonial states in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, Western countries were the only ones reaching the ‘Age of High-Mass Consumption’. 55 The Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites saw rising levels of mass consumption after a period of accelerated during which consumption was kept at a minimum in order to spur economic growth. Yet, the hardships of industrialization, which led to recurrent uprisings, tied with claims for national independence from Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, were never forgotten and the promises made by party leaders and economic planners were never kept. Actually existing workers in the East often felt betrayed by political leaders, claiming to represent them, because the rewards promised for hard work never materialized, at least not to the degree they had expected. Moreover, communist bureaucracies produced exactly the kind of passivity and disdain among workers that Luxemburg predicted in case the Bosheviks would stay on the centralized course she witnessed during the early days of the Russian revolution. 56 Under these circumstances Marxism, turned into a propaganda device by self-serving bureaucracies, never had a chance to play the role in working class formation that Luxemburg ascribed to it for 19th century workers in Western Europe. In the South, industrialization never went as far in the West or the East including communist China. 57 Developmental states that were promoting domestic industrialization and land reform alongside alternatives to imperialist exploitation internationally rested on highly fragile cross-class alliances tied together much more by the notion of national independence than Marxist ideas of working class internationalism.

Working classes in the three worlds of statist development looked very different from those Rosa Luxemburg had seen during her lifetime. Autonomous working classes, propagating internationalism while building national organizations in their mostly European home countries, were replaced by workers all around the world without much autonomous culture or organizing practice. In the West, most workers were effectively integrated into the capitalist system through the welfare state and consumerism; workers in East had no independent organizations whatsoever and thus, for the most parts, retreated into their private spheres, and working class formation in the South didn’t move beyond embryonic stages and remained in the shadow of developmentalist efforts at nation-building. In these worlds Marxism was anything but a catalyst of working class formation. Looking outdated in the West it retreated into critical theory, representing Soviet communism in the East it was completely discredited. Only in the South did it play a practical role; not in the working-class-centric versions developed from Marx to Luxemburg but in the anti-imperialist-popular-front blend advocated by Mao and the Comintern.

The radicalization of anti-imperialist struggles during the 1960s, most visibly symbolized by the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions, showed that the South was the weakest link in the statist world system. Yet, by the end of the decade, rebellions also shook the East and West, showing the limits to ‘socialist’ and capitalist accumulation on both sides of the iron curtain. 58 Whether it was Czech demands for a socialism with a human face in 1968, Polish workers confronting communist bureaucrats in 1971, rank-and-file rebellions from Detroit to Turin, or a whole variety of new social movements resenting the administered and colonized worlds they lived in; what became clear from the anti-systemic movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s was that capitalist accumulation and expansion couldn’t continue the way they had done during the long boom. In 1989, Arrighi, Hopkins, and Wallerstein looked back at these movements and qualified them as a ‘world revolution’ and a ‘great rehearsal’ but they weren’t sure what the rehearsal was for. 59 The answer to their question was given later that year East German party leaders, beleaguered by a mass movement claiming ‘We are the People’, opened the Berlin Wall and thus triggered the unraveling statist systems that had turned ‘from forms of development of the productive forces (…) into their fetters.’ The collapse of Soviet communism propelled the neoliberal counterrevolution that had build bridgeheads in parts of the South and the West to a global phenomenon. Radical movements in the 1960s and 1970s were strong enough to unsettle statist development but failing to build a post-statist socialism they rehearsed, against the best intentions, for the international of capital to take power. 60 Yet, this international is now as beleaguered by economic crises, growing discontent, and popular protests as statism was from 1968 to 1989.

Long Downturn to Great Recession and Beyond

In a way similar to the colonization of the South, which led to political conflict before every non-capitalist corner of the world was penetrated by capital, the post-war boom also ended because political conflicts got in the way of further investments rather than the final frontier of capitalist expansion had been reached. The difference between the turn from the 19th to the 20th century and late 1960s and 1970s was, though, that the former witnessed imperialist rivalries, in other words: a kind of intensified capitalist competition for colonial lands, while capitalist accumulation in the latter case was confronted by a whole array of antisystemic movements. A new women’s movement, demanding wages for household labour and expanded public services that would allow women to join the labour force outside the home threatened to drive up the total wage bill for capitalists. 61 The labour rebellion in the heart of Taylorized production processes, if successful, would have had the same effect. 62 Worse still, workers asked for more than higher wages, they also challenged existing wage scales, a most effective tool of containing workers bargaining power, and management control over the production process. Finally, the radicalization of developmental regimes threatened to diminish the capitalist world market even beyond the losses that the spread of Soviet communism had caused after World War II. After the oil price hike 1973, even more modest claims for higher commodity prices relative to industrial imports from capitalist centres sounded the alarm bells in corporate boardrooms. The cyclical downturn 1974/5, though, cooled much of the enthusiasm workers had shown towards the end of the long boom. 63 Moreover, the turn to austerity and Monetarism in the US and Britain effectively turned demands for welfare state expansion into charges of causing inflation and stagnation. The election of Reagan and Thatcher signalled the dawn of the neoliberal era in the West even though it took some time until governments in other countries fully embraced the new gospel. In the South, it was spread by counterinsurgency and, after the debt crises that the Monetarist turn in the early 1980s had triggered, IMF-imposed structural adjustment programs.

What was noticeable about the neoliberal turn was that economies did not collapse as Keynesian economists had argued it would if Depression-style economic policies would ever be adopted again. In a similar vain, welfare state advocates had argued that high levels of employment and social security were needed if open class struggle, invoking images of the ‘Red Decade’ of the 1930s, was to be avoided. Yet, both assertions turned out to be wrong. Accumulation resumed after the 1980/2 crisis triggered by the Volcker-shock because the Reagan administration embarked on large scale military Keynesianism as part of the Second Cold War but also because fiscal and debt crises caused by the consecutive recessions of 1974/5 and 1980/2 could be turned into levers to recommodify parts of the economy that were sheltered from capitalist market imperatives by welfare and development states, respectively. As it turned out the shelter they could provide had a breaking point and that was their dependence on financing coming from the private sector. Once funding fell short because of recessions and governments’ unwillingness or inability to compensate these shortfalls through public deficits or taxes on unused savings, deficits escalated and gave private creditors the means to push for privatizations. This, to use the term David Harvey coined with reference to Luxemburg, ‘accumulation by dispossession’ 64 in the West and in the South was complemented by investments in the increasingly global infrastructure of neoliberalism.

Recessions and the cyclical unemployment they cause weaken workers’ bargaining power temporarily. Once accumulation resumes and employment levels rise, union demands are back on the table. In order to bypass organized workers permanently, capitalists began to move their production to non-union low wage locations in the 1980s. Yet, doing so required investment in new plants and logistics networks. In other words: Capitalists’ efforts to outflank unions and, by extension, welfare states led to an investment boom that partially compensated for the shortfalls of effective demand that the turn against further welfare state expansion and developmentalism had caused.

The sources of demand growth during the neoliberal era were actually not too different from the Keynesian era. If one considers public services and social protections granted by the welfare state as part of workers lifeworlds one could say that their colonization, one of the factors driving capitalist accumulation, shifted partially from penetrating private households to recommodifying economic activities previously provided by the welfare state. Also, industrialization in the South didn’t stop after the neoliberal turn, in fact, in some countries it only took off after that turn, but changed its course from building industries meant to serve domestic markets to integration of Southern industries into global production networks. Moreover, arms production, which had seen some decline during the 1970s détente years, was picking up again since the early 1980s and remained high ever since. Taken together, demand growth was high enough to avoid permanent stagnation, let alone a total collapse, of post-Keynesian capitalism but remained lower than it had been during the Keynesian boom years. 65 Only the 1990s gave rise to hopes for another golden age. Yet, what was described as a computer-based New Economy during those years turned out to be a large-scale version of accumulation by dispossession that had become possible after the collapse of Soviet communism and came to an end once the formerly state-owned economies of Eastern Europe and Russia had been integrated into the capitalist world economy. Global capital accumulation after the 2001 recession was marked by unprecedented investment and export boom in China, which is fuelled by the continuing accumulation by dispossession within the country, and an equally unprecedented housing- and credit boom creating consumer demand for the US and world economy. 66 Since credits grew faster than incomes needed to service outstanding debt, increasing numbers of loans couldn’t be repaid and credit dried up. The ensuing financial crisis threw the world economy into the Great Recession. 67 The 2008/9 downturn could be contained through fiscal stimulus programs and the injection of virtually unlimited money from central banks but economic stagnation and a series of fiscal and debt crises, most notably in Europe, indicate that no markets are readily available for capitalist expansion. 68 Moreover, the austerity politics pursued more or less rigidly by governments around the world may actually cause the economic downturn that Keynesian and Marxist economists warned for in the 1970s when neoliberalism first raised its head. Chances for such a downturn rise if capitalists prove unable to push the frontier of capital accumulation further into non-capitalist environments. As in the past, this is not a question of abstract economic laws but of class struggle.

The neoliberal economics of class are straight forward: Capitalists’ fear of a profit squeez in the 1970s prompted a class action against welfare and developmental states that were seen as institutional bases for antisystemic movements of all kinds. This class action was successful in producing an actual wage squeeze for the workers of the world and growing inequality more generally. 69 Inequality has gone so far, and will increase even further if governments stay the course of austerity, that even business circles openly talk about a new gilded age and think about ways of stopping this trend to ward off discontent. 70

In other words, neoliberalism created a form of global capitalism that more similar to the ‘Age of Empire’ 71 that Luxemburg lived in than to the disintegration of the world economy during the Great Depression or the statist worlds after World War II. 72 The economics of global capitalism today, centred on the American Empire 73, may be different from those of a global economy made up by rivalling colonial powers. What distinguishes both ages of globalization from 20th century statism, though, is than neither of them knew the kinds of integration, or: nationalization, or working classes that were so typical, other differences notwithstanding, for Western welfare states, Soviet communism, and Southern developmentalism. Moreover, both ages of globalization were marked by increasing inequalities whereas statist regimes led to a certain level of equalization, even though these levels varied quite considerably between and within the three worlds of statism. However, while rising inequality during the ‘Age of Empire’ went hand in hand with the growing labour organizations and movements, nothing comparable happened in the ‘age of neoliberalism’. Quite to the contrary: Profit rates increased because capitalists successfully rolled back these movements, which had been partially institutionalized in various state apparatuses.

Over the long 19th century, national bourgeoisies had created a world market and industrial working classes whose organizations were internationalist in theory but focused on nation-states in practise, which allowed their integration into the various statist regimes developing over the short 20th century. Yet, once bourgeoisies came to see these regimes as an actual or potential threat to profits they banded together in an international bloc, some scholars go so far as to suggest this to be a transnational capitalist class 74, pushing for the transformation of welfare and developmental states, respectively, into competition states as a means of rolling back working and other subordinated classes in all countries. 75 Welfare states were shaped by class struggles of the 19th and early 20th century and allowed workers, after the sufferings and horrors of two world wars and the depression, to improve their working and living conditions after the war. However, the institutions that had helped them to lock in gains made at the bargaining table and through progressive legislation during the long boom were ineffective in defending such gains against the hit and run tactics used by neoliberalism’s rapid deployment forces.

One of the reasons for this ineffectiveness is that the bureaucracies of unions and social democratic parties had grown way beyond the levels that Luxemburg already found detrimental to autonomous working class action. 76 Collaboration of these bureaucracies with elected governments and state apparatuses made things certainly worse. However, rank-and-file militancy, in which the New Left had invested so much hope, didn’t score much better either. Whatever the motives of militant labour activists from the late 1960s to the early 1970s were, with hindsight we can see that tight labour markets were a key factor encouraging their assertiveness. Once mass unemployment had returned to Western capitalism, the exuberant militancy of the early 1970s was transformed in a series of defence actions against job losses from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s and than drowned in the rising tide of international competition. 77 The French general strike in 1968 and Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ 78 a year later signalled the beginning of the labour revolt from below during the long 1970s 79, the defeat of the American air traffic controllers in 1981 and British miners in 1984/5 mark their end. 80

In ‘Social Reform or Revolution’ Luxemburg called union activity “the labour of Sisyphus”. On the one hand, she says: “As a result of trade union activity, the capitalist law of wages is applied and the effect of the depressing tendency of economic development is paralysed, or to be more exact, attenuated.” On the other hand, the gains made by unions are constantly undermined by “the proletarianisation of the middle strata of our society” and “the growth of labour productivity”. 81 In light of the theory of accumulation that she developed later ‘proletarianisation of the middle strata’ might be interpreted as referring to all forms of capitalist penetration of non-capitalist environments. Thus, competition among workers that unions try to overcome is reinforced with every wave of capitalist expansion. The introduction of labour-saving technologies leads to heightened competition for jobs as well so that gains workers make at one point in time will be lost not much later. In ‘Mass Strike, Party, and Trade Unions’ expanded her argument about unions’ Sisyhphus-like activity by suggesting that the significance of struggles for higher wages and shorter hours, or, for that matter, progressive legislation, lies not in the actual gains made but in the experiences workers make during these struggles. Repeatedly she calls unions and workers’ parties “schools for socialism” in that text. 82 This ‘schooling’ was part and parcel of working class formation over the long 19th century, it was the collective memories accumulated and preserved in workers’ organizations and the moral economy they had built around them that served as intellectual armoury for the strategies developed and used during the class battles in the ‘Age of Catastrophe.’ Tragically, many of the individuals who carried such memories were killed during the world wars. At the end of her ‘Junius Pamphlet’, in which she analyzed the collapse of the Second International, Luxemburg warned:

“Another such world war and the outlook for socialism will be buried beneath the rubble heaped up by imperialist barbarism. (…) This is an assault, not on the bourgeois culture of the past, but on the socialist culture of the future, a lethal blow against that force which carries the future of humanity within itself and which alone can bear the precious treasures of the past into a better society.” 83

With respect to the kind of socialism Luxemburg envisioned this dire prediction turned out to be true. Welfare states that developed in the former heartlands of 19th century worker organizing were better places for workers to be than the communist countries of the East but even the former left little to no room for workers’ self-emancipation and internationalism. Workers who were shaped by experiences of war and crises, and were lucky enough to survive, and witnessed the absorption of working class culture into mass consumer society and the transformation of autonomous unions into parts of emerging labour relations machines found the experiences and views they had made in their formative years increasingly devalued. Even most of the workers who were active in the strike waves in the short period between the end of World War II and the beginning of the long boom had either dropped out of activism or become part of the new union machines themselves when a young generation of militants began to rebel in the late 1960s. The latter, brought up in the midst of unprecedented economic growth and rising standards of living even for most strata of the working class, neither had an understanding nor much interest in the proletarian conditions of an apparently bygone age. The torch of collective working class memory that had been passed on from generation to generation over the long 19th century had been dimmed by the horrors of two worlds wars, which flew into the face of so much optimism about the future of socialism that had shaped 19th century labour movements, and extinguished by the economic miracles and consumerism following the war period. If proof for this thesis were needed, the neo-communist offspring from New Left groups would deliver it. 84 Linking the Vietnam War to Nazi atrocities and the 1974/5 recession the Great Depression they were hoping to reinvigorate the working class radicalism of the 1930s and 1940s but saw their organizations diminished to insignificance even before the rise of neoliberalism began in the early 1980s. Whatever workers’ discontent in the 1970s was about, the language and the images of a supposedly heroic past of militant labour struggles only appealed to very few among them.

Once it became apparent that much of the labour militancy of the long 1970s was based on tight labour markets rather than organizations that would have been able to maintain assertive movements despite growing unemployment, the neoliberal strategy of redistributing incomes from bottom to the top could unfold. Every step that was taken in this economic direction was also another step to unmake the working classes that had developed over long periods of time before their core strata had been integrated into welfare states. Technological innovations, outsourcing, and relocation create a labour process radically different from anything workers had been experiencing from the days’ of Adam Smith’s pin factory 85 to the vertically integrated Taylorist apparatuses described by Harry Braverman. 86 This doesn’t mean the working class, at least not as ‘class for itself’, has disappeared. Quite the contrary: A higher share of the world population today is dependent on selling their labour power to make a living than at any previous time. 87 These workers, many of them in the informal sector or precariously employed, are also spread out across many more countries so that one can speak about an, though highly uneven, globalization of working class conditions. Moreover, many of the Taylorist practices that were considered ready for the dustbin of history by ideologists of the New Economy and its complementary knowledge societies, re-emerge in the most unlikely places from the export processing zones of the South 88 to the ranks of the global cybertariat 89 and middle class professionals facing the threat of deskilling and proletarianisation like European craftsmen did in the 19th century. The unmaking of industrial working classes of the West, and, after the collapse of Soviet communism, in the East, led the making of new industrial working classes in the South, were working class formation during the developmentalist era had not moved beyond embryonic forms, but also created entirely new working classes in service and logistics sectors all over the world. These are the conditions under which the formation of a global working class can happen. Local struggles that are popping up everywhere and for rather different reasons bare resemblance to the mass strikes Luxemburg describes and global activist networks allow to share local experiences and possibly merge them into a new international socialism.

Such a new socialist project faces two major challenges. First, it must connect struggles within the capitalist system with those against its further expansion. Socialists in the 1st and 2nd International only thought of workers subjected to the capitalist factory regimes as the only ones capable of overthrowing capitalism and establishing a society free of exploitation and oppression. Whether they felt sorry for colonized people or considered imperialism as part of capitalism’s mission to civilize the world, the darker nations 90 played no role in their strategic calculations. This changed drastically when the 3rd and 4th International hit the scene. Both considered the anti-colonial revolution as part of the worldwide struggle for socialism but it was never entirely clear whether or not thought that all post-colonial states would have to follow the same path of industrialization that the countries of the capitalist centres had taken. Women’s and environmental movements, struggling against the colonization of lifeworlds and the natural environment, since the 1970s challenge the logic of industrialization and economic growth and often see capitalists and socialists of all stripes as a colonizing force. More recently, indigenous movements often make the same claims but neither of these movements struggling against different forms of colonization overcomes the dichotomy between ‘system and lifeworld.’ 91 Cut off from their means of subsistence humans can’t sustain their lives without ties to the collective process of production and reproduction, no matter which forms this process takes. For that reason, movements struggling against further colonization of various ‘lifeworlds’ also have to struggle for changing ‘the system’. At the same time, it would be a mistake to see workers working under capitalist rule being fully integrated into the system, struggles for better working conditions and shorter hours are also struggles to defend their own lifeworlds and some measure of autonomy within them. Thus, rather than looking at struggles within the system and against colonization separately, and possibly trying to make tactical linkages, socialist strategy should focus on including everyone into the collective process of production and reproduction while at the same time allowing for individual autonomy and preserving the natural environment.

Second, any socialist project has to address the current and future roles of the state. The fact that statism turned out into an obstacle for the further advancement of workers working and living conditions after making some gains initially doesn’t mean that socialism could be built on a strict anti-state agenda. After three decades of neoliberal rollback workers, including the unemployed, are more dependent on public services, welfare payments, and social standards provided and set by the state. The point is to push back the alliance between financialized capital and competition states that create constant pressure on any kind of welfare state provisions. This push back also needs to go beyond the rebalancing capitalism and the welfare state. Experience with welfare capitalism during and even more after the long boom shows that capitalist are doing whatever they can to roll back gains that workers made during a boom when they see their profits threatened. Stopping and reversing this rollback thus requires breaking the hold of private property owners over the collective process of production and reproduction. Yet, the experience of Soviet communism suggests that replacing private property with different forms of ownership might be an even greater challenge than defending welfare states against the neoliberal onslaught. 92 It poses the question how workers rather than negotiating the terms of their employment can manage production and reproduction on their own terms. Difficult enough to answer that question on the level of single workplaces, answering it for the workers of the world seems almost impossible. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the question of socialism is rarely discussed among activists who claim that another world is possible.


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  2. Luxemburg, “Social Reform”, 60.
  3. Luxemburg, “Social Reform”, 64.
  4. Luxemburg, “Social Reform”.
  5. Rudolf Hilferding, Finance Capital – A Study in the Latest Phase of Capitalism (London, New York 2006, originally published 1911).
  6. Heinrich August Winkler, ed., Organisierter Kapitalismus (Göttingen 1974), authors introduction, 9-18.
  7. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes (London 1995), part 1.
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  9. John Atkins Hobson, Imperialism – A Study (Cambridge 2010, originally published 1902).
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  13. Luxemburg, Accumulation, 104.
  14. / Luxemburg, Accumulation, 110.
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  16. For the relations between Luxemburg and Polanyi’s theory of commodification see: Ingo Schmidt, „Rosa Luxemburg’s ‚Accumulation of Capital’: A Centennial Update with Additions from Long Wave Theory and Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation“, Critique – Journal of Socialist Thought 40, 3 (2012), 337-356, particularly 345/6.
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  67. Martijn Konings, ed., The Great Credit Crash (London, New York 2010).
  68. Ingo Schmidt, “Unmaking Neoliberal Europe – Capitalist Crisis and the Search for Alternatives”, Baris Karaagac, ed., Accumulation, Crises, Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism (forthcoming).​
  69. Branko Milanovic, Worlds Apart – Measuring International and Global Inequality (Princeton 2005).
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  77. Cowie, Stayin’ Alive, Schmidt, There Were Alternatives.
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  82. Luxemburg, Mass Strike, chapters 4&8.
  83. Luxemburg, “The Junius Pamphlet”, 438.
  84. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air – Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London, New York 2002).
  85. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (London et al. 1986, originally published 1776), chapter 1.
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  88. Beverly J. Silver, Forces of Labor – Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870 (Cambridge 2003).
  89. Ursula Huws, The Making of a Cybertariat – Virtual Work in a Real World (New York 2003)
  90. Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations (New York 2007).
  91. Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. II (Boston 1987), 113-198.
  92. Michael Lebowitz, The Contradictions of Real Socialism – The Conductor and the Conducted (New York 2012).

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