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   Vol. 67/No. 46           December 29, 2003  
Workers can’t ‘reform’ away exploitation
(Books of the Month column)
Printed below is an excerpt from the author’s introduction to Reform or Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month in December. Luxemburg was a leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany at the dawn of the 20th century. This book was her first major political work and one of her most enduring. In 1897--98, Eduard Bernstein published a series of articles in Neue Zeit, the theoretical organ of the SPD, in which he attempted to refute the basic tenets of scientific socialism, particularly Marx’s conclusion that capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own inevitable destruction. Luxemburg polemicized against Bernstein in this book, which she completed in April 1899.

Ferdinand Lassalle, referred to by Luxemburg below, was a German socialist and founder of the General Union of German Workers in 1863, which later fused with the followers of Karl Marx to form the SPD.

The November 17 Militant published the introduction to Reform or Revolution by Mary-Alice Waters, the book’s editor. As readers may have noticed, December’s Books of the Month are the same as for November. Copyright ©1970 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission.


At first view the title of this work may be found surprising. Can the social democracy be against reforms? Can we counterpose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the social democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal—the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor. Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the social democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.

It is in Eduard Bernstein’s theory, presented in his articles on “Problems of Socialism” in Neue Zeit of 1897--98, and in his book Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus and die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie [The Preconditions of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy—in English published under the title Evolutionary Socialism—Ed.] that we find for the first time, the opposition of the two factors of the labor movement. His theory tends to counsel us to renounce the social transformation, the final goal of the social democracy and, inversely, to make of social reforms, the means of the class struggle, its aim. Bernstein himself has very clearly and characteristically formulated this viewpoint when he wrote: “The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.”

But since the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the social democratic movement from bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois radicalism, the only factor transforming the entire labor movement from a vain effort to repair the capitalist order into a class struggle against this order, for the suppression of this order—the question: “Reform or revolution?” as it is posed by Bernstein, equals for the social democracy the question: “To be or not to be?” In the controversy with Bernstein and his followers, everybody in the party ought to understand clearly it is not a question of this or that method of struggle, or the use of this or that set of tactics, but of the very existence of the social democratic movement.

Upon a casual consideration of Bernstein’s theory, this may appear like an exaggeration. Does he not continually mention the social democracy and its aims? Does he not repeat again and again, in very explicit language, that he too strives toward the final goal of socialism, but in another way? Does he not stress particularly that he fully approves of the present practice of the social democracy?

That is all true, to be sure. It is also true that every new movement, when it first elaborates its theory and policy, begins by finding support in the preceding movement, though it may be in direct contradiction with the latter. It begins by suiting itself to the forms found at hand and by speaking the language spoken hereto. In time, the new grain breaks through the old husk. The new movement finds its own forms and its own language.

To expect an opposition against scientific socialism at its very beginning, to express itself clearly, fully, and to the last consequence on the subject of its real content; to expect it to deny openly and bluntly the theoretic basis of the social democracy—would amount to underrating the power of scientific socialism. Today he who wants to pass as a socialist, and at the same time would declare war on Marxian doctrine, the most stupendous product of the human mind in the century, must begin with involuntary esteem for Marx. He must begin by acknowledging himself to be his disciple, by seeking in Marx’s own teachings the points of support for an attack on the latter, while he represents this attack as a further development of Marxian doctrine. On this account, we must, unconcerned by its outer forms, pick out the sheathed kernel of Bernstein’s theory. This is a matter of urgent necessity for the broad layers of the industrial proletariat in our party.

No coarser insult, no baser aspersion, can be thrown against the workers than the remark: “Theoretic controversies are only for academicians.” Some time ago Lassalle said: “Only when science and the workers, these opposite poles of society, become one, will they crush in their arms of steel all obstacles to culture.” The entire strength of the modern labor movement rests on theoretic knowledge.

But doubly important is this knowledge for the workers in the present case, because it is precisely they and their influence in the movement that are in the balance here. It is their skin that is being brought to market. The opportunist theory in the party; the theory formulated by Bernstein, is nothing else than an unconscious attempt to assure predominance to the petty bourgeois elements that have entered our party, to change the policy and aims of our party in their direction. The question of reform and revolution, of the final goal and the movement, is basically, in another form, but the question of the petty bourgeois or proletarian character of the labor movement.  
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