Determinism and Freedom: A Review of Michael Löwy’s Rosa Luxemburg: The Incendiary Spark

Few thinkers in the radical left have had a more sustained and creative engagement with the thought of Rosa Luxemburg than Michael Löwy. After encountering several of her works as a teenager in Brazil in the mid-1950s, he arrived in France in the early 1960s with the “conscious and deliberate objective”[1] of providing a “Luxemburgist” reading of Marx in his dissertation, The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx. In the decades since, his extensive body of work as scholar and activist—ranging from studies of Lukács, Benjamin, Kafka, and Che Guevara to revolutionary romanticism, Latin American politics, and ecosocialism—has been marked by a spirit of political independence and theoretical clarity that resonates with what continues to draw so many to Luxemburg’s legacy.

This collection of ten essays has the virtue of covering Luxemburg’s political as well as economic writings—including an important analysis of one of her least-discussed works in the Anglophone world, The Introduction to Political Economy. The essays explore aspects of Luxemburg’s work through a philosophic lens, without presuming she was in any way a professional philosopher. These include discussions of her theory of class-consciousness, positive appraisal of anti-colonial revolts and precapitalist forms of communal life, critique of the suppression of democracy by both rightwing social democrats and the Bolsheviks following its seizure of power, and the ambiguities of the early Lukács’s effort to appropriate aspects of her thought.

Löwy’s most original (and contentious) contribution is the claim that Luxemburg was the first Marxist to reject the notion that socialism is the inevitable product of historical necessity. This represented “a real turning point in modern socialist thinking” (p. 75) that in many respects, he argues, makes her as our contemporary. After all, while the idea of a socialist society free of class domination, racism, sexism, and colonial domination refuses to go away, no one today argues that it is inevitably fated to come into existence. If not a mere subjective wish, the quest for socialism is most often seen today as a wager in which the odds are hardly stacked in our favor. This was not, of course, always the case. Löwy states, “Luxemburg has the merit of being one of the few in the workers and socialist movements to challenge the ideology of Progress, which was common among bourgeois liberals and among a good part of the Left” (p. 27).

It may help to back up a step and recall why it seemed self-evident to Marxists of her generation (and long afterward) that socialism is the inevitable product of historical necessity. The inner drive and compulsion of capitalism, virtually all Marxists recognized, is to accumulate capital, or self-expanding value, as an end-in-itself. Since economies of scale tend to generate greater rates of surplus value and profit, competitive pressures between enterprises augment the concentration and centralization of capital. This leads to the socialization of production, as competing units of capital become absorbed into massive enterprises owned by a relatively small number of individuals. At the same time, the concentration and centralization of capital leads to the socialization of labor, as large numbers of workers are brought together in the labor process to generate the surplus value needed for the expanded reproduction of capital. From the objective side, an “organized” form of social production arises that creates the material condition for overcoming “market anarchy.” From the subjective side, “there also grows the revolt of the working class… [which is] trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”[2] When these objective and subjective determinants converge, the potential for the supersession of capitalism and the creation of socialism becomes actualized.

Of course, exactly when and how they converge was a subject of intense debates within Marxism. Some gave more weight to the objective side, arguing that socialism will naturally arise from the socialization of production, others gave more weight to the subjective side, arguing that the determinant is the revolt of a working class conditioned by the socialization of labor. Others spoke of the “dialectical” relationship between the two. But all more or less agreed that the “laws of motion” of capitalism were inevitably laying the ground for socialism.

As Löwy shows, Luxemburg initially did so as well. Her early work, such as Reform or Revolution, held to the standard refrain among Marxists of the time that “the anarchy of the capitalist system leads inevitably to its ruin.” She also refers to Social Democracy is a “stimulant” that “hastens” the necessary rise of socialism. And she calls proletarian class consciousness “the simple intellectual reflection of the growing contradictions of capitalism and of its approaching decline’” (p. 2).

The critical phrase here is “the intellectual reflection.” This is the mainstay of the photo-copy theory of reality—that cultural and intellectual creation is “nothing but” but a reflection of the economic base. It was the governing epistemology of the Marxists of the Second International, including its most sophisticated theoreticians—Luxemburg, Kautsky, and Lenin included (at least up to 1914 for the latter, when he broke from it during his direct encounter with Hegel). This reductionist epistemology was brilliantly critiqued by Karel Kosík, whom Löwy has expressed his indebtedness to in other contexts.[3] Kosík writes in Dialectics of the Concrete,

Marxism is no mechanical materialism that would reduce social consciousness, philosophy and art to “economic conditions” and whose analytical activity would entail revealing this earthly kernel of spiritual artifacts. Materialist dialectics on the contrary demonstrates how a concrete historical subject uses his material-economic base to form corresponding ideas and an entire set of forms of consciousness. Consciousness is not reduced to conditions: rather, attention is focused on the process in which a concrete subject produces and reproduces a social reality, while being historically produced and reproduced in it himself as well.[4]

Nevertheless, as Löwy argues, even in Reform of Revolution Luxemburg was hardly a crude materialist, since her emphasis on the need to actively foster class consciousness made her “optimistic fatalism” more of a temptation than a hard-core doctrine. The latter, he claims, applied more to Karl Kautsky. In a refreshing retort to the neo-Kautskyian revival in parts of today’s Left, Löwy argues that his “entire worldview [was] the product of a marvelously successful fusion between the illuminist metaphysic of progress, social Darwinian evolutionism, and pseudo ‘orthodox Marxist’ determinism’” (pp. 2-3). He takes Kautsky’s Ethics and Materialist Conception of History (1906) to task for describing Marxism as “scientific research on the laws of evolution and the movement of the social organism” which seeks to “eliminate…a moral ideal [which] becomes a source of error if it is influences one’s aims” (p. 122).

Kautsky directed these comments in large part against Bernstein, who denied that capitalism was headed for crisis or collapse and instead upheld a neo-Kantian version of abstract Moralität. Luxemburg, who was politically aligned with Kautsky at the time, fully agreed with his critique of Bernstein’s “ethical socialism.” Yet Löwy is right that she never accepted the false binary that socialism is either the inevitable product of “economically determined historical development’ or “a moral [or ethical] choice.” This is because she emphasized the “socioeconomic conditions that determine, in the last the last instance…socialism as an objective possibility” (p. 7). Objective possibility refers to the determinations immanent in the object of investigation, whereas abstract possibility is independent of them. The notion of objective possibility informed all of Marx’s work, from the very beginning to the end of his intellectual career, as seen from his formulation, “I arrived at the point of seeking the idea in reality itself.”[5] That the object generates its own categories of knowing is a distinctly Hegelian notion—which was rejected by Bernstein and his fellow neo-Kantians. Luxemburg never made a direct study of Hegel (her references to him were mostly gleaned from Engels and Labriola), but she was an astute enough reader of Marx to know the concept.

Löwy argues that the “true turn in the history of Marxist thought” (p. 88) in breaking from the notion of historical inevitability is found in Luxemburg’s famous proclamation of “socialism or barbarism” in the Junius pamphlet (1915):

Friedrich Engels once said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism”…. Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness.… Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization … or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war.[6]

But if “socialism or barbarism” originally came from Engels, how could Luxemburg be the “first to explicitly deny that socialism is the inevitable product of historical necessity?” Löwy takes the source of Engels’ comment to be Anti-Dühring, which states, “if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place.” But since he did not use the phrase “socialism or barbarism,” Löwy says while Engels may have inspired her, she was the first to take the concept seriously rather than as a rhetorical flourish.

Thanks to Ian Angus, we now know the phrase does not come from Engels at all. It comes from Kautsky’s commentary on the Erfurt Program (1892), which became one of the most widely read texts in the socialist movement of the time. It stated, “If indeed the socialist commonwealth were an impossibility, then humanity would be cut off from all further economic development…. As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or back into barbarism.”[7]

Luxemburg wrote the Junius pamphlet from prison, so it is understandable that her memory did not serve her well when it came to recalling the correct source. But she was accurate enough in referring to it as dating from “a generation ago” (Anti-Dühring was written two generations previously). Moreover, it is hardly insignificant that she refers to it as what “we have all probably read and repeated.” If it is the case (as Angus notes) that “concepts and formulations in Kautsky’s book had become common currency in socialist circles,”[8]how much of a break from the established orthodoxy did Luxemburg’s evocation of “socialism or barbarism” really represent? To be sure, the shock of the Great Betrayal of 1914 and the carnage of World War I drove home to her the timeliness and urgency of the conception, which explains why 1915 is the first time the phrase appears in her writings.

Löwy acknowledges that the Junius pamphlet is somewhat ambiguous on this score, since it also includes references to inevitable capitalist collapse. Nevertheless, he insists, “’socialism or barbarism’ provides the foundations for another conception of the ‘dialectic of history,’ distinct from economic determinism and the illuminist ideology of continuous progress” (p. 19). I would add that she places even greater stress on inevitable capitalist collapse in the Anti-Critique, written several months after the Junius pamphlet: “Marx’s schematic representation of accumulation—when rightly understood…constitutes a prognosis of the economically inevitable downfall of capitalism.”[9] This did not stop her from stating three years later, in “What Does the Spartacus League Want?”: “At this hour, socialism is the only lifeline for humanity. The words of the Communist Manifesto blaze like a fiery omen over the crumbling walls of capitalist society: Socialism or descent into barbarism![10]

Given all of this, it does not seem implausible to hold to a unilinear notion of historical inevitability and still contend that consciousness and organization play an important role in determining political outcomes. Even the crudest economic determinists never doubted the importance of having a political party to advance the cause of socialism. And Kautsky, who was a far more sophisticated thinker than such crude positivists such as Victor Adler (who said “Marxism is in its very essence nothing but pure science”), surely never doubted it as well. Far from leaving everything to “inexorable quasi-natural laws” of evolution, the Marxists of the Second International worshipped organization. Hundreds of thousands (especially in Germany) devoted their whole lives to it. If anything, the Second International fetishized organization. Nothing was lower in the eyes of the SPD than the “unorganized”—indeed, Luxemburg fought that attitude for years in arguing (especially from 1905 onward) that the “backward” Russian proletariat was more revolutionary than the “organized” West Europeans.

Löwy is surely right that the more the stick is bent in the direction of historical inevitability, the greater the likelihood of adapting a passive attitude that defers revolutionary action until the “objective conditions ripen.” This clearly defined the trajectory of Kautsky and the Austro-Marxists after 1909, with ultimately disastrous results. Marxists had to break from the unilinear historical determinism that defined even many revolutionary social democrats if it were to have a future. The question is to what extent did Luxemburg succeed in doing so.

What speaks to this (even if indirectly) is her writings on precapitalist relations, colonialism, and the non-Western world. The chapter on “Western Imperialism Against Primitive Communism: A New Reading of Rosa Luxemburg’s Economic Writings,” contains an excellent discussion of her appreciation of precapitalist indigenous communal formations and support of the “fierce resistance” put up by colonized peoples against colonialism and imperialism. After correctly taking issue with her dismissal of demands for national self-determination, he notes, “The idea of an alliance between the communist traditions of colonized peoples and the communist program of the modern workers’ movement is only hinted at in her writings” (p. 72). This may be an understatement in light of the recent discovery of a large number of her previously unknown writings on anti-colonial revolts in Africa.

While it has long been known that she attacked Germany’s genocide against the Nama and Herero in southwest Africa in The Accumulation of Capital and Junius Pamphlet, it has only been recently discovered that she wrote a series of twice-weekly analyses of the revolt against it in 1904, in the Polish-language newspaper Gazeta Ludowa. The publication was sponsored by the SPD at Luxemburg’s insistence (Poznan at the time was part of German-occupied Poland)—though she did not let on that she wrote almost all its articles (she had far fewer followers in Poznan than she had the SPD believe). Virtually every issue between January and June 1904 contained writings by her in support of the ongoing Nama and Herero revolt as well as those in Malawi, the Congo and South Africa. The amount of material on Africa alone comes to about 70 book-length pages. Luxemburg clearly wanted the Polish proletarian to know what was happening in Africa—and for them to extend solidarity with the victims of German colonialism.[11]

Löwy sees in Luxemburg’s emphasis on the “resilience” of precapitalist communal formations a break with linear evolutionism, positivist progressivism, and all the banally ‘modernizing’ interpretations of Marxism that prevailed in her day” (p. 61). She certainly did not accept the modernist assumption that indigenous forms were backward or an obstacle to progress. However, while she credited them for their level of solidarity, reciprocity and social planning, she also held that every one of them was doomed to destruction. She writes in Introduction to Political Economy, “The encounter [with capitalism] is deadly for the old society universally and without exception…tearing apart all traditional bonds and transforming the society in a short period of time into a shapeless pile of rubble.”[12] Although Lówy mentions elements of earlier communal forms that still survive today in Chiapas, the Andes, and elsewhere, it is safe to infer that that this would have come as a great surprise to Luxemburg herself.

Her stress on the inevitable destruction of communal formations is even more pronounced in her dismissal of the ability of Russia’s mir to serve as a basis for socialism. Löwy acknowledges that her “view is much more critical than Marx’s” (p. 61)—but this too is an understatement. She rejected tout court his position that “Russia’s peasant communal land ownership may serve as the point of departure for a communist development.”[13] She did not know of Marx’s letter to Vera Zasulich in which he made the same point (Plekhanov prevented its publication and it did not appear until 1924). But she certainly knew of Marx and Engels’ Preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto (from which I just quoted) and went out of her way to never mention it. The reason is rather basic: she didn’t agree with Marx and Engels’ Preface and didn’t want to offer fodder to the Populists by discussing it. The new points of departure contained in Marx’s late writings on the non-Western world were not picked up by her generation and only began to be rediscovered in the past several decades.

Nowhere in her writings on Russia or the non-Western world does Luxemburg suggest that a developing society can achieve a transition to socialism without an extended period of capitalism. This includes her estimate of revolutionary possibilities in Russia. She stated as late as April 1917—exactly when Lenin issued his famous “April Theses”:

Thus, the revolution in Russia has today defeated bureaucratic absolutism at the first attempt. However, this victory is not the end, but only a weak beginning. For, on the one hand, the retrograde movement of the bourgeoisie from its present ostensible position of confident liberalism must sooner or later, with inevitable logic, given its general reactionary character, culminate in its class opposition to the proletariat. On the other hand, the once-awakened revolutionary energy of the Russian proletariat must, with equally inevitable historical logic, regain the path of radical democratic and social action and resume the program of 1905: a democratic republic, the eight-hour day, expropriation of large estates, etc. Above all, however, for the socialist proletariat in Russia this is the most urgent slogan that is inextricably linked to all the others: end the imperialist war! [14]

Clearly, as late as 1917 Luxemburg still held that Russia must experience the bourgeois-democratic phase that escaped it with the failure of the 1905 Revolution. There is no evidence that she departed from this perspective, even as she worked tirelessly for socialist revolution in developed capitalist lands like Germany. Nor did this change with the Bolshevik seizure of power, which she strongly supported. She wrote in one of her last letters, “It is clear that, under such conditions, i.e., being caught in the pincers of the imperialist powers from all sides, neither socialism nor the dictatorship of the proletariat can become a reality, but at the most a caricature of both.”[15]

What then becomes of the claim that Luxemburg “breaks with linear evolutionism, positivist progressivism”? And if she did not fully break from it, how can it be claimed that she was the first to explicitly deny that socialism is the product of historical necessity?

The problem of organization directly impinges on these questions. Löwy argues that Luxemburg’s “understanding of the subjective factor, will, and consciousness” in the Junius pamphlet led to a “real rapprochement” between her and Lenin on the question of organization after 1915, “in practice as in theory” (pp. 9-10). He attributes their earlier differences to her “misunderstanding the Leninist theory of the party,” since before 1914 she believed “the fall of capitalism was inevitable and that the victory of the proletariat would be irresistible” (p. 93).

This calls for some unraveling. While endless claims have been made that Lenin and Luxemburg were opposites on organization, the historical evidence does not bear this out. Such claims are often made by those who ignore her organizational work in the Polish movement—to which she devoted an immense amount of time and effort. The Polish parties she led (the SDKP and SDKPiL) were highly centralized, hierarchical, and disciplined—in many respects more so than Lenin’s. She and Lenin had their organizational differences, including when the Bolsheviks split from the Mensheviks in 1902/03. But it is worth remembering that her 1904 critique of Lenin’s centralism came after the SDKPiL attempted to join his party (the effort was aborted over differences on the national question). Moreover, she did not deny the need for centralism in her 1904 polemic: she instead argued that it offers no cure-all for opportunism. Nor did she deny the importance of the power of the will and the need for revolutionary parties to seize the historical initiative. It was central to her writings of 1905-1910 on the mass strike.

All Marxists in the Russian Empire faced the task of applying the organizational principles of Western Social Democracy (largely formulated by Kautsky) to conditions in an absolutist regime lacking the most rudimentary forms of democratic representation. They had to be centralist to one or another degree since they largely operated underground in the face of severe repression. Just as the form of the party in England or Germany was not suited for Russia, the same was true in reverse. Lenin pined for the day when he could have a “normal” party along the lines of the SPD once Russia achieved its bourgeois-democratic revolution. And Luxemburg often asked Leo Jogiches, her co-leader in the SDKPiL, “to stop ‘baring your teeth,’ since his Polish-Russian organizational ideas, which concerned a little group of ‘seven and a half,’ simply were not applicable to a mass organization like the German.”[16]

So, what do we make of Löwy’s claim that Luxemburg’s disputes with Lenin on organization (those of 1904, 1911, and 1912 were the sharpest) flowed from misunderstanding Lenin’s theory of the party due to her belief that the fall of capitalism was inevitable? He writes half a dozen times that Luxemburg was the first to break from that idea, in 1915—which means Lenin had not broken from that idea during their organizational disputes of 1904 to 1912.

Hence, it cannot be that the differences between Lenin and Luxemburg (in 1904 or afterwards) was due to her adhering to notions of historical inevitability. The organizational dispute that split the RSDLP was not about the inevitability of socialism, which virtually everyone (including Lenin) took for granted. It was about the specific form of a party whose role is to help generate social democratic class consciousness. They had differences over how to actualize that goal, but they did not differ over the need for a party to take the initiative and at some point seize power.

Lenin did break from unilinear evolutionism in 1914 during his six-month engagement with Hegel’s Science of Logic, in which he embraced such Hegelian notions as “leaps” and “transformation into opposite.” He concretized this in his 1920 “Report on the National and Colonial Question,” arguing that “the backward countries may pass to the Soviet [stage]…and [then] to Communism, without passing through the capitalist stage of development.”[17] And in 1914 he broke from the crude pre-Kantian photocopy theory of knowledge of his past in writing, “man’s consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but creates it.”[18] However, he never extended his philosophic breakthrough to the question of the party.

To put it simply, there is no necessary connection between “the question of the party” and the “inevitability of socialism.” After the second congress of the RSDLP the Mensheviks accepted the Bolshevik plan for a highly centralized party—but they clearly adhered to a strict version of unilinear historical inevitability in arguing that the liberal bourgeoisie must lead the revolution for a democratic republic. And the anarchists never accepted the idea of historical inevitability, but that hardly warmed them to Lenin’s concept of the party. What divided the Mensheviks from Lenin, and what brought Lenin and Luxemburg closer together from 1905 to 1907, was the question of revolution—namely, which class is to lead the Russian revolution.

The question of revolution is also what brought them together in 1917—even though in 1912 their disputes on organization had become so intense that she denounced “this Leninist, anti-Marxist purely bourgeois conception of a political party, according to which the leader is everything and the masses nothing…Leninism is by its nature a policy of perpetual splits.”[19]

Quite a way from proclaiming (in 1918) “the future everywhere belongs to Bolshevism”! But where is the evidence of a rapprochement between Lenin and Luxemburg on organization, given her sharp critique of the Bolsheviks for imposing a single-party state that shut down democratic deliberation after the seizure of power?

Löwy is at his best discussing Luxemburg’s 1918 critique of the Bolsheviks. Although he (rightly in my view) takes issue with her critique of their support for national self-determination and distributing land to the peasants, he is fulsome in praising her attack on the Bolsheviks for suppressing democracy. He calls The Russian Revolution “prophetic,” noting that Trotsky’s comment that “cumbersome democracy…is not adapted to revolutionary periods” implies a refusal of “any popular representation during the revolution” (p. 47).

And he credits her for contrasting “the conception of ‘class dictatorship,’ as a collective form of power…to the one being implemented by the Bolsheviks, which in her view has more in common with Jacobinism.” By shutting down outlets for expression independent of the party, “Bolshevik leaders involuntarily helped to create the golem that was to destroy them” (p. 49).

This is further explored in a fascinating chapter on “Lukács and Rosa Luxemburg,” which tackles the shift in Lukács from his appreciative “The Marxism of Luxemburg” (1921) to his censorious “Critical Evaluations of Luxemburg” (1922). The latter is characterized by a series of falsehoods, such as that she rejected a centralized and disciplined organization and “underestimated the importance of conscious organization” (p. 114). Worse of all, “Lukacs categorically rejected the distinction between the party and class dictatorship” (p. 116). Left unmentioned is that once in power Lenin also categorically rejected this distinction. Given Luxemburg’s explicit attack on substituting the dictatorship of a party for that of the class, it becomes hard to see how there was a rapprochement between the two on organization.

After reading Löwy’s chapter on Lukács, I was reminded of István Mészáros’s comment that History and Class Consciousness sought to “out-Hegel-Hegel” by equating proletarian class consciousness with Hegel’s unified subject-object. Lukács’s 1922 essay set the ground for those who would “out-Lenin-Lenin” by promoting his organizational conceptions as a universal. Trotsky comes to mind as the exemplar of this approach. It was bad enough to generalize a “Leninist model” of organization developed in response to specific Russian conditions for Western democracies that had little in common with them, but it was even worse to presume that it offered the template for what to do after the seizure of power elsewhere. The latter notion was upheld by a host of autocratic regimes that claimed to be “Leninist,” while the former helped produce perpetual splits that led (more or less) to nowhere.

Although Lówy’s discussion of the organization question is far from convincing, he makes a very astute observation in the book’s final chapter “Ideology and Knowledge in Rosa Luxemburg” in drawing attention to the following comment in Reform or Revolution:

The secret of Marx’s theory of value, of his analysis of money, his theory of capital, his theory of the rate of profit, and consequently of the whole existing economic system is found in the transitory character of capitalism, the inevitability of its collapse leading…to the final goal, socialism. And precisely because, a priori, Marx looked at capitalism from the socialist’s viewpoint, that is, from the historical viewpoint, he was enabled to decipher the hieroglyphics of the capitalist economy.[20]

Löwy draws from this that working-class consciousness provides a “higher standpoint” than claims of scientific objectivity. He is right about that, but I think the passage is suggesting more—namely, that viewing the present from the vantage point of a vision of an emancipated future provides a higher standpoint that an empirical critique of the present.

This has taken on far more importance given what faces us today—since as Luxemburg feared, the suppression of democracy in the name of socialism “only discredits socialism and nothing more.”[21] We have experienced a full century of this discrediting, and not alone because of what happened in Russia after 1917. Hence, leaving the discussion of what constitutes a genuine socialist society vague and indeterminant is no longer viable. We must begin, as it were, from the “Absolute”—from a vision of the transcendence of capitalism—even though there is no historical certainty that it will come into being.

In 1944, when confronting Stalinism—a phenomenon Luxemburg never lived to witness—the young Raya Dunayevskaya wrote the following about the passage in Reform or Revolution:

Had Marx not based himself on the inevitability of socialism, he could not have discerned the law of motion of capitalist collapse; he would have been unable to get out of the web of capitalist phenomena to perceive its contradictory essence. In an age of atom-smashing, must we really go back to a conception of science which is so narrow as to bury the dialectic in the debris of pragmatism?[22]

I believe this addresses the very different reality we face today as compared to Luxemburg or Lenin’s time. When the Russian Revolution mutated into totalitarian state-capitalism under Stalin it became all the harder to uphold the notion that the concentration and centralization of capital and its accompanying socialization of production would pave the way for socialism. It became harder still to adhere to such a notion when the collapse of the USSR led not to widespread workers’ revolts but rather to the triumph of free market neoliberalism—which has proved so non-viable in turn that we now face the growth of a neo-fascist far Right worldwide. But this does not mean our only option is to posit socialism as a moral or ethical choice now that we can no longer presume that socialism will arise from the laws of historical development. This is because the emergence of ever-new structures of domination is met by “new passions and new forces” striving to liberate themselves from capitalism’s logic of self-destruction. What remains missing is a concept of socialism that goes beyond a critique of market anarchy, private property, and the inequitable distribution of surplus value. After all, we have vivid proof that revolutions can target all of these and still fail to posit an exit from capitalism. If this generation is to “decipher the hieroglyphics of capitalist economy” in a way that targets not merely its phenomenal but essential determinants, it too will have to “look at capitalism from the socialist’s viewpoint,” that is, from the viewpoint of its dialectical opposite, the new society.

This suggests making a distinction between historical and logical inevitability. Historical inevitability is the notion that a given outcome is predetermined to occur; logical inevitability is the notion that presupposing a given outcome provides the vantage point for grasping essential determinants of the present—regardless of whether the outcome will actually occur. Luxemburg hinted at such a distinction in the passage from Reform or Revolution, though she never went on to develop it. The strictures against discussing the nature of socialism and “what happens after the revolution” among the Marxists of her time was too powerful for her to overcome. But we cannot afford to succumb to that kind of error today. As I argued in Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, we desperately need to re-envision what socialism means for today as a liberatory project—and proceed from its standpoint. That is what can help decipher the hieroglyphics of today’s capitalist economy and target its essential determinants in a way that can point the path to its supersession. It’s late in the day, but not too late.

I’m not sure if Lówy would agree with this way of salvaging a non-determinist notion of the inevitability of socialism, but it is one of the many questions that come to mind in engaging this highly worthwhile and engaging collection.


[1] “Preface to the French Edition,” Michael Löwy, Rosa Luxemburg: The Incendiary Spark, edited by Paul Le Blanc with a Foreword by Helen Scott (Chicago: Haymarket Books: 2024), p. xii. All page refences in this text are to this work.

[2] Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, translated by Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 929.

[3] See Michael Löwy, “Spirit of Resistance: Notes for an Intellectual Biography of Karel Kosík, in Karel Kosik and the Dialectics of the Concrete, edited by Joseph Grim Feinberg, Ivan Landa, and Jan Mervart (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2023).

[4] Karel Kosík, Dialectics of the Concrete (Dordrecht-Holland: D. Reidel, 1976, p.69.

[5] “Letter from Marx to His Father in Trier” [1837], in Marx-Engels Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), p. 18.

[6]The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis in German Social Democracy, in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (New York: Monthly Review Books, 2004), p. 321.

[7] Karl Kautsky, Das Erfurter Programmin seinem grundsätzlichen Teil erläutert,

[8] Ian Angus, “The Origin of Rosa Luxemburg’s Sloan ‘Socialism or Barbarism,’” Climate & Capitalism, October 27, 2015,

[9] The Accumulation of Capital, Or, What the Epigones Have Made Out of Marx’s Theory—An Anti-Critique, in The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. 2, edited by Peter Hudis and Paul Le Blanc (New York and London: Verso Books, 2013), pp. 445-6

[10] “What Does the Spartacus League Want?” in The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. 5, edited by Helen C. Scott and Paul Le Blanc (New York and London: Verso Books, 2024, p. 302.

[11] For more on this, see Peter Hudis, “Rosa Luxemburg Exposed the Colonial Genocide in Namibia,” Jacobin Online,February 6, 2024,

[12] Introduction to Political Economy, in The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. 1, edited by Peter Hudis (New York and London: Verso Books, 2015), pp. 227-8. My emphasis.

[13] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Preface to the Second Russian Edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Late Marx and the Russian Road, edited by Teodor Shanin (New York: Monthly Review Books, 1983).

[14] “The Revolution in Russia,” in The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. 5, edited by Helen C. Scott and Paul Le Blanc (New York and London: Verso Books, 2024), p.134.

[15] Letter to Julian Marchlewski of September 30, 1918, in The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annaleis Laschitza (New York and London: Verso Books. 2011), pp. 474–5.

[16] Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1982), p. 91.

[17] V. I. Lenin, “Report on the National and Colonial Question,” in Selected Works, Vol. 10 (New York: International Publishers, 1943), p. 243.

[18] V.I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic,” in Complete Works, Vol. 38 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1896), p. 212.

[19] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Breakdown of Unity in the RSDLP” [1912],

[20] Reform or Revolution, in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (New York: Monthly Review Books, 2004), pp. 150-1.

[21] Letter to Julian Marchlewski of September 30, 1918, The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annaleis Laschitza (New York and London: Verso Books. 2011). pp. 474–5.

[22] Raya Dunayevskaya, “The Inevitability of Socialism and the Law of Motion of Capitalist Society,” in The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection (Wayne State University Archives of Labor History and Urban Affairs), 9119-9125.


  • Peter Hudis

    Peter Hudis is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Oakton College (USA) and author of Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Brill, 2012) and Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades (Pluto Press, 2015), and has published numerous book chapters and essays in journals on issues related to Hegelian philosophy, Marxist theory, Critical Pedagogy, Latin American social movements, and Philosophical Perspectives on Race. He co-edited (with Kevin B. Anderson) The Power of Negativity: Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx, by Raya Dunayevskaya and The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, as well as The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (with Annelies Laschitza and George Adler). He is General Editor of The Complete Works of Luxemburg, a planned 17-volume collection being issued by Verso Books; he has edited Volume I of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg: Economic Writings 1 and co-edited Volume II, Economic Writings 2 (with Paul Le Blanc), Volume III, Political Writings 1 (with Axel Fair-Schulz and William A. Pelz), and Volume IV, Political Writings 2 (with Sandra Rein). He is author of the Introduction to Critique of the Gotha Program, by Karl Marx (PM Press, 2022).

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 2

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