Rosa Luxemburg on “the Socialist Civic Virtues”

By Steve D’Arcy

Of all the early-20th century marxists, Rosa Luxemburg arguably made the most notable contributions to leftist democratic theory, underlining the importance of the self-emancipation of the working class, and the dangers of substitutionism. “Let us speak plainly,” she wrote. “Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”rosa_luxemburg

But one of her most striking and least well-understood contributions was to draw on the classical “republican” notion of “civic virtue,” as a vital part of her analysis of working-class democracy. Although the application of notions of “vice” and “virtue” to personal dispositions within the workers movement (e.g., virtues like solidarity and vices like opportunism) was no doubt already widespread by the end of the 19th century, Luxemburg may have been the first to explicitly deploy the formula of “socialist civic virtues,” and to integrate this notion into a larger “civic-republican” conception of political engagement as active participation of all in public affairs, animated by a public-spirited devotion to the self-governance of equals.

It is in the context of articulating this socialist-republican ideal that Luxemburg introduced the notion of “socialist civic virtues.”

The essence of socialist society consists in the fact that the great laboring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire political and economic life its own life and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction…. Only through constant, vital, reciprocal contact between the masses of the people and their organs, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, can the activity of the people fill the state with a socialist spirit…. From dead machines assigned their place in production by capital, the proletarian masses must learn to transform themselves into the free and independent directors of this process. They have to acquire the feeling of responsibility proper to active members of the collectivity which alone possesses ownership of all social wealth. They have to develop industriousness without the capitalist whip, the highest productivity without slave-drivers, discipline without the yoke, order without authority. The highest idealism in the interest of the collectivity, the strictest self-discipline, the truest public spirit of the masses are the moral foundations of socialist society, just as stupidity, egotism, and corruption are the moral foundations of capitalist society. All these socialist civic virtues, together with the knowledge and skills necessary to direct socialist enterprises, can be won by the mass of workers only through their own activity, their own experience. The socialization of society can be achieved only through tenacious, tireless struggle by the working mass along its entire front, on all points where labor and capital, people and bourgeois class rule, can see the whites of one another’s eyes. The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.

This is such a remarkable contribution to socialist political philosophy that it merits a closer look. I want to draw out and underline some examples of specific socialist civic virtues, highlighted both in this passage and elsewhere in Luxemburg’s work. In particular, I think five of the socialist civic virtues merit particularly close examination: the civic virtues of militancy, solidarity, collectivism, self-activity, and “tenacity in struggle.”

In the most general sense, a virtue is an admirable disposition (where “disposition” means a reliable tendency to act in a certain way, under appropriate circumstances). We admire the disposition to be willing to take personal risks in pursuit of important ends. This is the virtue of “courage.” It contrasts with the vice of cowardice, the disposition to shirk or evade risks, even when important ends demand risk-taking.

Specifically civic virtues differ from such personal virtues mainly because our admiration for them is grounded in the importance we assign to their impact on public affairs. A civic virtue is a disposition that we admire because of its salutary effect on public affairs. For instance, we admire some dispositions because their activation, by large numbers of people, tends to weaken the grip of systems of domination or exploitation or to hasten the self-emancipation of the exploited and oppressed.

Consider five of the socialist civic virtues identified, either explicitly or implicitly, by Luxemburg.

  1. Militancy. The virtue of militancy is the admirable disposition to adopt an adversarial, confrontational stance toward intransigent elites and unresponsive systems of power, and so to be willing to defy authority and disrupt institutions in order to oppose injustice and oppression. As Luxemburg puts it, this demands that the working class cultivate a rebellious, fighting spirit, “by extirpating, to the last root, its old habits of obedience and servility.” There must be a shift, she says, from “the regulated docility of an oppressed class” to “the self-discipline and organization of a class struggling for its emancipation.” The socialist civic virtue of militancy consists of what Luxemburg calls the “combative spirit” that animates the class struggle at its best. Elsewhere she calls it, more vividly still, “the forward-storming combative energy of the masses.” In her view, we are right to admire this combativeness, to exhort one another to cultivate it, and to hold up exemplars of it to ourselves and each other as models of civic excellence worthy of emulation. (I try to develop this notion of militancy as a civic virtue in my own book, Languages of the Unheard.)
  2. Solidarity. Luxemburg’s activism and intellectual work were carried out at a time when the value of solidarity was widely understood. Today, this is no longer the case. Even on the activist Left, there are many who view solidarity with suspicion, on the grounds that the exhortation to treat “an injury to one” as if it were “an injury to all” seems, to some, to imply that everyone in fact undergoes the same injuries, which obviously they do not. But Luxemburg believed that the morality of the working class was grounded in “solidarity, harmony, and respect for every human being.” In her view, solidarity does not mean actually enduring the same injuries, but something quite different: resisting injuries to others as if they were direct attacks on oneself. Rather than viewing it with suspicion, we should admire the stance of solidarity, not only because it is a effective at building and maintaining potent alliances based on long-term commitment to common struggle, but also because it embodies the “highest idealism in the interest of the collectivity.” It elevates us above the bourgeois-ideological “rationality” of egoistic calculation of personal advantage.
  3. Collectivism. This brings us to the third socialist civic virtue, collectivism. In this context, collectivism is the disposition to act politically in ways that repudiate individualism, in favour of “the feeling of responsibility proper to active members of the collectivity.” In other words, we rightly admire those who act in “the truest public spirit of the masses.” Collectivism, in this sense, is among “the moral foundations of socialist society, just as stupidity, egotism, and corruption are the moral foundations of capitalist society.” (Quotations in this section are all from the long quoted passage, given above.)
  4. Self-activity. Self-activity is another important socialist civic virtue, which Luxemburg continually promotes. As she says (see above), it is by means of this admirable disposition of self-activity that “the great laboring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire political and economic life its own life and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction.” Here Luxemburg echoes the Kantian idea (and anticipates its use in Irish Autonomism, from Connolly to Holloway) that it is our capacity to direct our own decision-making that gives us our peculiar dignity. Whereas autonomy elevates us, heteronomy — the other-directedness of a “dominated mass” — is degrading. Heteronomy lowers and demeans us, so we rightly admire those who embody the disposition to act for themselves, notably to “break the chains” that subject them to the dictates of others. “The mass of the proletariat must do more than stake out clearly the aims and direction of the revolution. It must also personally, by its own activity, bring socialism step by step into life.”
  5. “Tenacity in Struggle.” The fifth socialist civic virtue to which Luxemburg draws our attention is what she calls “tenacious struggle.” We applaud all struggle against exploitation and oppression, of course. But the most excellent, admirable struggle embodies a relentless insistence on prevailing, even in the face of setbacks. What we admire, she suggests, is not just struggle in general, but “tenacious, tireless struggle by the working mass along its entire front, on all points where labor and capital, people and bourgeois class rule, can see the whites of one another’s eyes.” In this sort of tenacity in struggle, even “after fresh disappointments and disenchantments,” she says, the best exemplars “will stand all the more firmly and faithfully by” the movement “that knows no compromise, no vacillation…, without counting its enemies and dangers – until victory.”

It is important for those of us on the Left of today — so different, in both good and bad ways, from the Left of her time — to be willing to learn from Luxemburg’s insights about civic virtue. There’s a danger that we might slouch, thoughtlessly, into a neo-Schmittian marxism, which recognizes only the strategical categories of “friend” and “foe,” but cannot stomach the more demanding categories of “admirable” and “contemptible,” upon which so many of Luxemburg’s most emphatic assessments rested. But we need these concepts. We need to cultivate the kind of sensitivity to excellence and degradation that enables the best, most admirable among us — people like John Brown, or indeed Rosa Luxemburg — to steer clear of the corrupting influence of “access to power,” a “seat at the table,” “taking the helm,” and other temptations.

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