13 June 2019

Rosa Luxemburg’s historical insights

Pepijn Brandon

The question of the role of violence in capitalist expansion, both historically and in the present, has engaged many of the system’s critics. Discussions on this topic have always revolved around the question how capital exploits, and subjects to its logic, elements that lie beyond the capitalist process of production and circulation as theorized in the three volumes Marx’s Capital. They have included such fundamental issues as the role of imperialism and colonial subjection, the violent struggles between and inside nation-states for the control of natural resources, the logic of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression, and the continuing existence of coerced and unpaid labor under capitalism. One of the first Marxist thinkers to deal with the relationship between expanding capitalism and its “outside” on a truly global scale was Rosa Luxemburg, who was brutally murdered one century ago this year. In her brilliant 1913 workThe Accumulation of Capital, subtitled “A Contribution to the Economic Interpretation of Imperialism”, she provided a daring and highly controversial reinterpretation of Marx, arguing that capital accumulation can only take place on a continuous basis as long as there are non-capitalist regions that can be forced to absorb the surplus production of the capitalist core. In the third and final part of the book, she included one of the most perceptive accounts of the historical preconditions of capitalist development. However, the almost complete rejection of Luxemburg’s theoretical argument in the first two parts of the book by fellow Marxists, has caused most later readers to overlook the immense value of this account.

            Immediately upon publication of her book, Luxemburg’s main theoretical argument came under sustained fire from representatives of all different wings of the socialist movement.[1] Luxemburg developed her notion that capitalism will enter terminal crisis without access to non-capitalist spheres out of a critique of Marx’s famous reproduction schemes in Capital, Volume II. Most Marxist thinkers at the time and later rejected her “under-consumptionist” interpretation. There are good grounds to do so, although the extraordinary vehemence with which many lesser minds attacked her suggests that other motives played a role. Political hostility against Luxemburg drove many attacks from the right. In addition, the diminutive tone of many of the responses has a definitive ring of sexism toit[PB1]. The content of these arguments has been described previously on this website. However, as the historian Marcel van der Linden has argued not so long ago, it is possible to reject the argument that the exhaustion of non-capitalist spheres forms the absolute barrier for capital accumulation, and still accept the observation of the historical importance of the violent integration of independent peasant production, the destruction of community-based economies, and the perpetual reproduction of all kind of middle strata between capitalists and wage workers in actual capitalist development.[2] Luxemburg saw the function of violence in the combination between the erratic, constantly growth-seeking, crisis-prone process of expansion of global capital on the one hand, and the substantial possibilities for the realization of surplus value outside capital’s immediate sphere on the other. She therefore analyzed this violence as “a continuous method of capital accumulation as a historical process, not just at its Genesis, but up to the present”.

            The historical section III of The Accumulation of Capital consists of eight chapters. After restating her theoretical position on the impossibility of capital’s expanded reproduction without the existence of “outside markets”, Luxemburg discusses the ways in which capital, with the help of the state, opens up, penetrates and subjects these regions. The economic aims behind this struggle between capitalism and societies with a “natural economy” were fourfold:

1. To gain immediate possession of important sources of productive forces such as land, game in primeval forests, minerals, precious stones and ores, products of exotic flora such as rubber, etc.

2. To “liberate” labor power and to coerce it into service.

3. To introduce a commodity economy.

4. To separate trade and agriculture.

In the chapters that follow, Luxemburg describes how the murderous victories attained by capital in these four areas were accompanied by the introduction of a commodity-economy, the dissolution of small peasant economies, by the expansion of international loans, protectionism and militarism. The parallels with Marx’s treatment of “the so-called original accumulation” at the end of Capital, Volume I are obvious, and Luxemburg shares the same eye for the stream of human misery that the conquerors leave in their wake. “Since the primitive associations of the natives are the strongest protection for their social organizations and for their material bases of existence, capital must begin by planning for the systematic destruction and annihilation of all the non-capitalist social units which obstruct its development.” At the same time, Luxemburg insists that this violence not merely forms a preliminary to normal or real capital accumulation, explaining that “… we have passed beyond the stage of primitive accumulation; this process is still going on.”

The extraordinary sharpness with which Luxemburg dissected the realities of imperialist domination from the point of view of the countries subjected to it, arose from a dual source. On the one hand, she criticised a dogmatic understanding of capitalist development prevalent among many socialists, who showed an interest in historical processes only in as far as they neatly fit their abstract theoretical conceptions. Thus, for example, she rejected a linear and mechanic connection between capitalism and the expansion of free labor. After acknowledging that “the emancipation of labor power from primitive social conditions and its absorption by the capitalist wage system is one of the indispensable historical bases of capitalism”, she continued to note the many contradictions which this process involved: “For the first genuinely capitalist branch of production, the English cotton industry, not only the cotton of the Southern states of the American Union was essential, but also the millions of African Negroes who were shipped to America to provide the labor power for the plantations … Obtaining the necessary labor-power from non-capitalist societies, the so-called “labor-problem”, is ever more important for capital in the colonies. All possible methods of “gentle compulsion” are applied to solving this problem, to transfer labor from former social systems to the command of capital.” Apart from this understanding of the complexities of historical development, the force of Luxemburg’s position also arose from her unequivocal opposition to imperialist expansion, at a time when more moderate Social-Democrats were willing to embrace colonialism and militarism as potentially progressive forces. Luxemburg’s historical analysis gave full importance to slavery, colonial exploitation, and the destruction of natural economies not by counterpoising them to “ordinary” capitalist development and the exploitation of the proletariat in the West, but by showing them to be a – in her view indispensable – complement to it. This is what made her, in the words of Marcel van der Linden, “the first Marxist who tried to develop a truly global concept of solidarity from below”.

The complete rejection of The Accumulation of Capital by the right and the left of the socialist movement buried her insights for several generations. But it is not so surprising that they are being rediscovered today. It is hard not to appreciate Luxemburg’s understanding of the links between imperialism and the continued swallowing by capital of everything that is beyond its borders, when seeing Bolsonaro’s agenda of privatising the rain forests, or when thinking of the havoc wrecked by multinationals in many parts of Indonesia on traditional communities and eco-systems. However, this rediscovery also poses difficult questions of analysis and definition, of the kind that Rosa Luxemburg herself was never afraid to confront. The Marxist geographer David Harvey contributed substantially to the reappraisal of Rosa Luxemburg by reformulating her theory of capitalist expansion as a theory of “accumulation of dispossession”. However, under this term, Harvey includes not only capital’s encroachment upon communities that previously at least in part had been able to keep the market at bay, but also the more traditional process in which successful capitalists swallow up the spoils of their defeated rivals inside the capitalist system through “normal” economic means, corruption and theft, or the use of the state. This equation of two very different historical phenomena led him to argue that under neoliberalism, “accumulation by dispossession” in fact has become the dominant form of accumulation. With this interpretative shift, however, Luxemburg’s stress on the fundamental connectedness of capital accumulation as Marx understood it, the ordinary process of centralisation and concentration of capital, and the integration of non-capitalist areas seems to be considerably weakened. Harvey’s reinterpretation, then, raises a difficult problem: in the 21st century, what exactly constitute the “outsides” of global capital accumulation? Reading Rosa Luxemburg underlines the strategic importance of finding an answer. Because, however we judge the theoretical debates that it spawned, the supreme strength ofThe Accumulation of Capital is the way that it connected capital’s border struggles to the social conflicts at the system’s core.

This article was first published in Indonesian on the website



[1] For an excellent summary of the content of these critiques, see Daniel Gaido and Manuel Quiroga, ‘The early reception of Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism’, Capital & Class, Vol. 37, Issue 3 (2013),, as well as the relevant documents gathered in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, Discovering Imperialism. Social Democracy to World War I (Leiden / Boston, Brill: 2012; Historical Materialism Book Series, Volume 33).

[2] Marcel van der Linden, ‘Rosa Luxemburg’s Global Class Analysis’, Historical Materialism, Vol. 24, Issue 1 (2016)

[PB1]The removed sentence referred specifically to earlier contributions on Indoprogress.


Image from “1907 Neg 8543” byrosalux-stiftung is licensed underCC BY 2.0