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Rosa Luxemburg

Chapter 6

However that may be, we have at last arrived at imperialism. The concluding chapter of Bauer’s essay is entitled The Explanation of Imperialism. After this, the reader might well hope finally to find one. After Bauer had explained that I had only uncovered one root of imperialism, ‘but not the only one’, one could only expect that, from the standpoint of his theory, he himself would lay bare the other roots. Unfortunately, this was not the case. To the end, Bauer fails to give one single indication of the other roots, he keeps the secret to himself. In spite of the concluding chapter’s promising title and introduction we are still left with only the one miserable ‘root’ of imperialism, which forms the ‘kernel of truth’ in my incorrect explanation.

In doing this, however, Bauer has already conceded too much to me, in the shape of the ‘one root’ which he kindly accepts as true’. For here too it is a case of either/or, and the compromise which Bauer tries to make is basically as impermanent and ethereal as most compromises.

For if his ‘population growth’ theory of accumulation were correct, the ‘root’ would be completely unnecessary, since then imperialism would simply be impossible.

Let us remind ourselves what Bauer’s ‘mechanism’ consists of. It consists in the fact that capitalist production automatically readjusts itself to the growth of the working class. Then how can one speak of a ‘limit’ to accumulation? Capital neither needs to nor can it overstep this limit’. For if production grows faster than the working class – in Bauer’s ‘over-accumulation’ phase – it compensates for this by lagging behind the available working population again in the following phase of ‘under-accumulation’. In this way there is in general no surplus capital in Bauer’s ‘mechanism’ which could outgrow his ‘limit’. Yet for the same reason this theory, as we have seen, excludes the formation of reserve capital and the ability of production to expand suddenly. Surplus capital appears as only a passing phase which must periodically be replaced by the opposite extreme, capital shortage: in Bauer’s ‘mechanism’ both phases replace each other with the pedantic regularity of new moon and full moon. There are no more ‘limits’ to capital accumulation than there is a tendency for these to be exceeded; Bauer himself explicitly states that accumulation always returns to this limit of its own accord, due to the ‘mechanism of capitalist production itself’.[1] Thus, there is no conflict between capital’s ability to expand and an alleged limitation. Bauer only takes the trouble to include these concepts in his ‘mechanism’ so that he can build some sort of artificial bridge between it and imperialism. The explanation which he is compelled to give of imperialism from the standpoint of his theory shows most clearly that this construction is forced.

Since, according to Bauer, the working class is the axis around which capital revolves, expansion of the limits to accumulation comes to mean increase in the population of workers! This is down in black and white in Neue Zeit.[2]

Accumulation is at first limited by the growth of the working population. Imperialism increases the number of workers who are forced to sell their labour power to capital. It accomplishes this by destroying the old modes of production in colonial areas and thereby forcing millions either to emigrate to capitalist areas or to serve European or American capital in their native land, where the capital has been invested. Since with a given organic composition of capital the amount of accumulation is determined by the growth in the available working population, imperialism is in fact a means to enlarge the limits of accumulation.

So this is the main function and the main concern of imperialism: to increase ‘greatly’ the number of workers, either by immigration from the colonies or in their own country! And this, despite the fact that anyone who is in full possession of his senses is aware, on the contrary, of the continual presence of a complete, consolidated industrial reserve army of the proletariat and unemployment in the home countries of imperialist capital, in the old capitalist countries, whilst in the colonies capital is always complaining about labour shortage! Thus, in its urge for new wage proletarians, imperialist capital escapes from those countries where rapid technological progress, the energetic process of the proletarianization of the intermediate strata and the destruction of the proletarian family are continually replenishing the labour reserve; it prefers to flow to the very parts of the world in which rigid social relations in traditional forms of property keep the labour force in such strong shackles that it takes decades of the crushing impact of the domination of capital to produce, as the final result of this domination, a semi-usable proletariat!

Bauer fantasizes about a ‘giant’ stream of workers coming from the colonies to the old centres of capitalist production, while anyone with eyes can see that, on the contrary, workers emigrate to the colonies, along with the emigration of capital from the old centres to the colonies, which, as Marx says, ‘indeed only follows emigrating capital’. Indeed, look at the ‘giant’ stream of people from Europe settling in North and South America, South Africa and Australia in the nineteenth century. Look at the different modes of ‘moderate’ slavery and forced labour European and North American capital employs to secure the necessary minimum of labour in the African colonies, in the West Indies, South America and the South Seas.

According to Bauer, English capital fought long and bloody wars with China for half a century to secure a ‘giant’ stream of Chinese coolies to meet the drastic lack of English workers. The same urgent need must have caused the united European crusade against China at the turn of the century. French capital was obviously mainly after the Berbers in Morocco to compensate for its deficit of French proletarians. Naturally, Austrian imperialism in Serbia and Albania was primarily hunting for fresh labour. German capital is now scouring Asia Minor and Mesopotamia with a torch for Turkish industrial workers, all the more as there was such a shocking lack of labour in all sectors in Germany before the World War! Clearly, Otto Bauer, ‘as a man who speculates’, has yet again forgotten our plain earth. He cold-bloodedly interprets modern imperialism as capitalism in search of new labour. This is meant to be the nucleus, the innermost principle motivating imperialism. Only as a matter of secondary importance does he mention the need for overseas raw materials, which has no economic connexion with his theory of accumulation, and comes like a bolt from the blue. If accumulation in the specific ‘isolated capitalist society’ can flourish as well as Bauer shows us, then it must have at hand all the necessary natural treasures and gifts from heaven on the miraculous island – quite different from the miserable capitalism of harsh reality, which from its very inception has depended for its existence on the world’s means of production. And finally, in the third place, Bauer quite casually mentions in two sentences the acquisition of new markets as a minor motive for imperialism, and only as another means to mitigate the crises. This, of course, is another ‘nice thing to say’; as is commonly known on our planet, any considerable expansion of the market is followed by an enormous sharpening of the crises.

This is the ‘explanation of imperialism’ Otto Bauer finally gives: ‘In our opinion capitalism is possible even without expansion.’[3] This is the culmination of his theory of ‘isolated’ accumulation, and we are left with the consoling assurance that one way or the other, ‘with or without expansion capitalism will bring about its own downfall ...’

That is historical materialist research method in ‘expert’ execution. So capitalism is also conceivable even without expansion. Indeed, for Marx the urge of capitalism to expand suddenly forms a vital element, the most outstanding feature of modern development; indeed, expansion has accompanied the entire history of capitalism and in its present, final, imperialist phase, it has adopted such an unbridled character that it puts the whole civilization of mankind in question. Indeed, this untameable drive of capital to expand has gradually constructed a world market, connected the modern world economy and so laid the historical basis for socialism. Indeed, the proletarian International, which is to make an end of capitalism, is itself only a product of the global expansion of capital. But all this is quite unnecessary, a different historical course is conceivable. Indeed, is anything ‘inconceivable’ for a powerful thinker? ‘In our opinion capitalism is conceivable even without expansion.’ In our opinion modern development is conceivable even without the discovery of America and the circumnavigation of Africa. If one thinks about it for long enough one can even conceive of man’s history without capitalism. Finally, the solar system is conceivable without our earth. German philosophy is perhaps conceivable without its ‘metaphysical clumsiness’. Only one thing seems to us to be quite inconceivable: that an official Marxism which thinks in this way could, as the intellectual avant garde of the Labour movement in the phase of imperialism, have resulted in something other than the miserable fiasco of Social Democracy which we have to witness today in the World War.

Of course, tactics and strategy in the practical struggle are not directly dependent on whether one considers the second volume of Capital to be a finished work or just a fragment, whether one believes in the possibility of accumulation in an ‘isolated’ capitalist society or not, whether one interprets Marx’s models of reproduction one way or the other. Thousands of proletarians are good and brave fighters for the aims of socialism without knowing about these theoretical problems . for the reasons of a common basic understanding of the class struggle, an incorruptible class instinct and the revolutionary traditions of the movement. But there is the closest connexion between the understanding and treatment of theoretical problems and the practice of political parties over long periods. In the decade before the World War, German Social Democracy, as the international metropolis of proletarian intellectual life, displayed total harmony in theoretical as well as practical areas; in both areas the same indecision and ossification appeared, and it was the same imperialism as the overwhelmingly dominant manifestation of public life which defeated the theoretical as well as the political general staff of Social Democracy. The proud monolithic edifice of official German Social Democracy was revealed at its first historical trial to be a Potemkin village.[4] Similarly, the apparent theoretical ‘expert knowledge’ and infallibility of official Marxism, which blessed every practice of the movement, turned out to be a grandiose façade hiding its inner insecurity and inability to act behind intolerant and insolent dogmatism. The sad routine moving along the old tracks of the ‘tried and tested tactics’, i.e. nothing but parliamentarianism, corresponded to the theoretical epigons who clung to the master’s formula whilst renouncing the living spirit of his teachings. We have already noted in passing some proof of this thoughtlessness in the ‘supreme court’ of ‘experts’.

But the connexion with practice is in our case even more obvious than it may seem at first sight. It basically means two different methods of fighting imperialism.

Marx’s analysis of accumulation was developed at a time when imperialism had not yet entered on to the world stage. The final and absolute rule of capital over the world – the precondition on which Marx bases his analysis – entails the a priori exclusion of the process of imperialism. But – and here lies the difference between the errors of a Marx and the crass blunders of his epigons – in this case even the error leads on to something fruitful. The problem posed and left unanswered in the second volume of Capital – to show how accumulation takes place under the exclusive rule of capitalism – is insoluble. Accumulation is simply impossible under these conditions. This apparently rigid theoretical contradiction has only to be translated into historical dialectics, in that it conforms to the spirit of the entire Marxist teaching and way of thinking, and the contradiction in Marx’s model becomes the living mirror of the global career of capitalism, of its fortune and fall.

Accumulation is impossible in an exclusively capitalist environment. Therefore, we find that capital has been driven since its very inception to expand into non-capitalist strata and nations, ruin artisans and peasantry, proletarianize the intermediate strata, the politics of colonialism, the politics of ‘opening-up’ and the export of capital. The development of capitalism has been possible only through constant expansion into new domains of production and new countries. But the global drive to expand leads to a collision between capital and pre-capitalist forms of society, resulting in violence, war, revolution: in brief, catastrophes from start to finish, the vital element of capitalism.

Capital accumulation progresses and expands at the expense of non-capitalist strata and countries, squeezing them out at an ever faster rate. The general tendency and final result of this process is the exclusive world rule of capitalist production. Once this is reached, Marx’s model becomes valid: accumulation, i.e. further expansion of capital, becomes impossible. Capitalism comes to a dead end, it cannot function any more as the historical vehicle for the unfolding of the productive forces, it reaches its objective economic limit. The contradiction in Marx’s model of accumulation is, seen dialectically, only the living contradiction between the boundless expansionist drive and the limit capital creates for itself through progressive destruction of all other forms of production; it is the contradiction between the huge productive forces which it awakens throughout the world during the process of accumulation and the narrow basis to which it is confined by the laws of accumulation. Marx’s model of accumulation – when properly understood – is precisely in its insolubility the exact prognosis of the economically unavoidable downfall of capitalism as a result of the imperialist process of expansion whose specific task it is to realize Marx’s assumption: the general and undivided rule of capital.

Can this ever really happen? That is, of course, theoretical fiction, precisely because capital accumulation is not just an economic but also a political process.

Imperialism is as much a historical method for prolonging capital’s existence as it is the surest way of setting an objective limit to its existence as fast as possible. This is not to say that the final point need actually be attained. The very tendency of capitalist development towards this end is expressed in forms which make the concluding phase of capitalism a period of catastrophes.[5]

The more ruthlessly capital uses militarism to put an end to non-capitalist strata in the outside world and at home, the more it depresses the conditions of existence of all working strata, the more the day-to-day history of capital accumulation on the world stage changes into an endless chain of political and social catastrophes and convulsions; these latter, together with the periodic economic catastrophes in the shape of crises, make continued accumulation impossible and the rebellion of the international working class against the rule of capital necessary, even before it has economically reached the limits it set for itself.[6]

Here, as elsewhere in history, theory is performing its duty if it shows us the tendency of development, the logical conclusion to which it is objectively heading. There is as little chance of this conclusion being reached as there was for any other previous period of social development to unfold itself completely. The need for it to be reached becomes less as social consciousness, embodied this time in the socialist proletariat, becomes more involved as an active factor in the blind game of forces. In this case, too, a correct conception of Marx’s theory offers the most fruitful suggestions and the most powerful stimulus for this consciousness.

Modern imperialism is not the prelude to the expansion of capital, as in Bauer’s model; on the contrary, it is only the last chapter of its historical process of expansion: it is the period of universally sharpened world competition between the capitalist states for the last remaining non-capitalist areas on earth. In this final phase, economic and political catastrophe is just as much the intrinsic, normal mode of existence for capital as it was in the ‘primitive accumulation’ of its development phase. The discovery of America and the sea route to India were not just Promethean achievements of the human mind and civilization but also, and inseparably, a series of mass murders of primitive peoples in the New World and large-scale slave trading with the peoples of Africa and Asia. Similarly, the economic expansion of capital in its imperialist final phase is inseparable from the series of colonial conquests and World Wars which we are now experiencing. What distinguishes imperialism as the last struggle for capitalist world domination is not simply the remarkable energy and universality of expansion but – and this is the specific sign that the circle of development is beginning to close – the return of the decisive struggle for expansion from those areas which are being fought over back to its home countries. In this way, imperialism brings catastrophe as a mode of existence back from the periphery of capitalist development to its point of departure. The expansion of capital, which for four centuries had given the existence and civilization of all non-capitalist peoples in Asia, Africa, America and Australia over to ceaseless convulsions and general and complete decline, is now plunging the civilized peoples of Europe itself into a series of catastrophes whose final result can only be the decline of civilization or the transition to the socialist mode of production. Seen in this light, the position of the proletariat with regard to imperialism leads to a general confrontation with the rule of capital. The specific rules of its conduct are given by that historical alternative.

According to official ‘expert’ Marxism, the rules are quite different. The belief in the possibility of accumulation in an ‘isolated capitalist society’, the belief that capitalism is conceivable even without expansion, is the theoretical formula of a quite distinct tactical tendency. The logical conclusion of this idea is to look on the phase of imperialism not as a historical necessity, as the decisive conflict for socialism, but as the wicked invention of a small group of people who profit from it. This leads to convincing the bourgeoisie that, even from the point of view of their capitalist interests, imperialism and militarism are harmful, thus isolating the alleged small group of beneficiaries of this imperialism and forming a bloc of the proletariat with broad sections of the bourgeoisie in order to ‘moderate’ imperialism, starve it out by ‘partial disarmament’ and ‘draw its claws’! Just as liberalism in the period of its decline appeals for a well-informed as against an ill-informed monarchy, the ‘Marxist centre’ appeals for the bourgeoisie it will educate as against the ill-advised one, for international disarmament treaties as against the disaster course of imperialism, for the peaceful federation of democratic_ nation states as against the struggle of the great powers for armed world domination. The final confrontation between proletariat and capital to settle their world-historical contradiction is converted into the utopia of a historical compromise between proletariat and bourgeoisie to ‘moderate’ the imperialist contradictions between capitalist states.[7]

Otto Bauer concludes his criticism of my book with the following words:

Capitalism will not collapse from the mechanical impossibility of realizing surplus value. It will be defeated by the rebellion to which it drives the masses. Not only then, when the last peasant and the last petty-bourgeois change into wage-workers, thus no longer providing a surplus market, will capitalism disintegrate: it will be cut down much earlier by the growing rebellion of the ever-rising working class, educated, united and organized by the mechanism of the capitalist mode of production itself.

In order to direct this advice to me specifically, Bauer, a master of abstraction, had to abstract not only from the entire meaning and direction of my conception of accumulation, but also from the clear text of my statements. His own brave words, however, can once again only be construed as a typical abstraction of ‘expert’ Marxism, i.e. as the harmless but short-lived flickering of ‘pure thought’. This is demonstrated by the position of this group of theoreticians towards the outbreak of the World War. The rebellion of the ever-rising, educated and organized working class suddenly changed into the policy of ‘abstention’ on epoch-making decisions of world history and ‘silence’ until the bells of peace ring out. ‘The road to power’, brilliantly illustrated down to the last detail in a period of serene peace, when there was still not a sound in the treetops,[8] changed course straight to the ‘road to impotence’ at the first gust of reality. The epigons who held the official theoretical leadership of the Labour movement in the last decade bankrupted themselves at the first outbreak of the world crisis and handed leadership over to imperialism. A clear understanding of these connexions is one of the essential conditions for the reconstruction of a proletarian policy which would measure up to its historical tasks in the period of imperialism.

Once again, the self-pitying will bewail the fact that ‘Marxists are arguing amongst themselves’, that tried and tested ‘authorities’ are being contested. But Marxism is not a dozen people who ascribe the right to ‘expert knowledge’ to each other and before whom the mass of faithful Moslems must prostrate themselves in blind trust.

Marxism is a revolutionary world outlook which must always strive for new discoveries, which completely despises rigidity in once-valid theses, and whose living force is best preserved in the intellectual clash of self-criticism and the rough and tumble of history. Thus, I agree with Lessing, who wrote to the young Reimarus:

‘But what can one do! Let each man say what he thinks to be the truth, and leave truth itself to God.’

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[1] Neue Zeit, 1913, No.24, p.873. {p.108}

[2] loc. cit. {p.109}

[3] loc. cit., p.874. {p.109}

[4] [Potemkin villages. Gregory Alexandrovich Potemkin (1724-91), the most outstanding personality of the time of Catherine the Great, and said to have been Catherine’s lover, was authorized by the Empress to organize ‘New Russia’ in the South. He brought old ports up to date, set up new villages and founded Ekaterinislav (Catherine’s Glory). His critics alleged that his villages were cardboard fronts, built to deceive the Empress when she toured the area.]

[5] Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, p.425. [See p.446, London edn.]

[6] ibid., p.445. [p.466, London edn.]

[7] Eckstein, who denounced me for the ‘catastrophe theory’ in his review in Vorwärts of January 1913 by simply borrowing from the vocabulary of Kolb-Heine-David: (‘The practical conclusion which Comrade Luxemburg constructs on the theory of necessity of non-capitalist consumers, especially the catastrophe theory, falls with the theoretical assumption’) – is denouncing me now, since the swamp theoreticians have taken a ‘left’ turn, for the opposite crime of aiding and abetting the right-wing Social Democracy. He points out eagerly that Lensch, the same Lensch who gravitated to Kolb-Heine-David in the World War, approved of my book and reviewed it favourably in the Leipziger Volkszeitung. Is the connexion not obvious? Suspicious, highly suspicious! ‘For that very reason’ Eckstein had felt himself obliged to destroy my book so thoroughly in Vorwärts. But the very same Lensch approved of Marx’s Capital even more – before the war. Yes, and a man called Max Grunwald was for years an enthusiastic interpreter of Marx’s Capital at the Berlin Workers’ Education School. Is that not convincing proof that Marx’s Capital directly leads one to cheer for England’s destruction and write birthday articles for Hindenburg? But that sort of blunder happens to Eckstein, ruining his intentions. As is well known, already Bismarck complained often about the blind eagerness of his journalistic reptiles.

[8] [‘In allen Wipfeln Ruh’ – quotation from Goethe – Trans.]

Last updated on: 16.12.2008