| Revolutionary realpolitik

August 2019
Michael Brie & Mario Candeias

Revolutionary realpolitik I

by Michael Brie

An agonising contradiction drives many people on the Left; they know that a fundamental transformation of our societies is necessary, indeed, indispensable because of a lack of basic justice. The capitalist growth machine is taking us towards an ecological disaster barring billions of people from enjoying a life in dignity, the most life-defining questions are not decided in a democratic way, people are living their lives as illegal immigrants and wars destroy entire societies. In real terms there is very little they can do. In fact, even in the lives of Germany’s most radical Autonome there are reformist aspects, they accept compromises (at work, when shopping or on holiday) that are diametrically opposed to their declared objectives. Trade unionists know all too well that only a fundamental transformation of society can ever promise to secure good work and better lives permanently, yet all they can do is hope for progress within the existing structures – if at all. Left-wing parties write socialism into their manifestos, yet in government are acting primarily in administrating the status quo in a more or less better way within the conditions of fierce competition of cities and regions for capital and high skilled labour force. The revolutionary break with the structures of property and power, with the whole mode of social development seems vitally important, and nevertheless only agonisingly little is possible in reality and often even reverses into the opposite. This even applied to the countries where revolutionary rupture occurred, in the Soviet-style real socialist countries.

The term as used by Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg herself coined the formulation ‘revolutionary Realpolitik’ (1903, 373) featured in an article for Vorwärts, the SPD’s official newspaper, on March 14 1903 although it was not attributed to her. It was on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the death of Karl Marx. She never used this term again and the term played no further role in left debate of the time.

By linking revolution, on the one hand, with realpolitik on the other, Rosa Luxemburg intended to draw a conclusion from the discussions within the German social democratic movement, which had been taking place since 1896 under the heading of social reform or revolution -, known as the ‘revisionism debate’. This occurred within the context of the real contradictions within the social democratic movement and left-wing politics at the time. Towards the end of the 19th century, capitalism and the German Empire appeared to have stabilised. After the abrogation of the Anti-Socialist Laws, the SPD had returned to working on a legal footing. The party subsequently enjoyed immense parliamentary success (around a third of Reichstag MPs were SPD in 1914), a majority, however, was not on the horizon. A number of social reforms were implemented which Eduard Bernstein and others hoped could lead to the introduction of elements of socialism, planning, social security and public ownership: ‘In the advanced countries we stand at the eve if not of the dictatorship certainly of a very substantial influence of the working class, respectively the parties that represent them, it is therefore certainly not a waste of time to take stock of the intellectual tools at our hands with which we march into this era.’ (Bernstein 1897, 165)

From the outset, Luxemburg believed that it was wrong to oppose reform and revolution. She wrote that, thanks to Marx, ‘The working class has managed for the first time to transform the idea of socialism as the ultimate aim into daily politics’ divisional coins and to elevate the everyday political detail work to the big idea’s executive tool. There was bourgeois politics led by workers and there was revolutionary socialism before Marx. But only since Marx and through Marx has a socialist working class-politics existed that is at the same time and in the fullest meaning of both words revolutionary realpolitik’. (Luxemburg 1903, 373) She rejected separating reform-oriented realpolitik in everyday life under the German Empire and waiting for the ‘Kladderradatsch’ (August Bebel) and revolutionary breakdown. The Russian revolution of 1905, which firmly took hold in her home country of, Tsarist-occupied Poland as well, provided her with new motivation. In 1906 Luxemburg wrote from Warsaw, ‘The revolution is splendid. All else is bilge.’ (Luxemburg 1906a)

Based on this experience, she seeks to organically fuse the direct struggles in defence of the interests of workers and suppressed regions of the world and a revolutionary transformation of society. As Frigga Haug writes: ‘Within this context, Rosa Luxemburg gives us a lesson in the art of creating linkages, dissenting and above all – self-criticism.’ (Haug 2009,  21) Right up to the founding of the KPD at the turn of the year 1918/19 she emphasized, opposed to those who insisted on boycotting national assembly elections: ‘they understand: either machine guns or parliamentarism. Our aim is a slightly refined radicalism. Not the coarse either or.’ (Luxemburg 1918a, 483)

Luxemburg seeks to combine reform, revolution and realpolitik in a different way to both the reformists and Lenin. Unlike Bernstein and others, Lenin threw his weight completely behind revolution. Yet all of them agreed, as did many other social democrats at the time, that the right consciousness, which in Lenin’s case was a ‘revolutionary’ consciousness, needed to be instilled in the masses of workers. This was politics on behalf of others. Workers were mainly a means to the end of their own liberation under the leadership of either a reform-oriented or revolutionary party. For Luxemburg, however, the 1905 revolution primarily highlighted one fact: ‘The living matter of world history, even in the presence of Social Democracy; and only if there is blood circulation between the organised nucleus and the popular masses, only if one heartbeat vitalises the two, can Social Democracy prove that it is capable of great historical deeds.’ (1913, 252) In The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (1906b) she summarised these insights. Only a form of politics based on the actions of people, which is propelled by them, in which especially they are always experimenting with new forms and content, learn and draw their own conclusions, establish their own forms of organisation and demolish outdated ones can be revolutionary realpolitik. For her, a left-wing party and its leadership were valuable in as much as they support self-organisation and empowerment and encourage people to move forward when the time is right. She vehemently opposed the Bolshevik’s suppression of political freedoms because the elimination of democracy, ‘Stops up the very living source from which alone can come correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammeled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people.’ (Luxemburg 1918b, 302)

Importance today

Over the course of the past 100 years, the Left has gained a lot of experience with revolutionary realpolitik. We could name the attempts for a unified or popular front during the 1920s and 1930s for a left historic block by the Italian Communist Party, for left-wing projects of transformation such as in Spain between 1936 and 1939, or Unidad Popular in Chile from 1970 to 1973, or most recently in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Revolutionary realpolitik however also includes projects of immediate self-organisation of workers in factories and companies (from Spain to Argentina), cooperatives or participatory budgeting first tried in Porto Alegre (Brazil). Finally, this list should also include approaches directed at new modes of production, exchange or living. These efforts include the housing projects in Red Vienna or in the Soviet Union following the First World War, yet also the communes of the 1968 movement, third world shops and peer-to-peer production.

Revolutionary realpolitik, however, is more than simply the sum of a set of projects. We should only talk about revolutionary Realpolitik, if actors consciously and purposefully work in such a way that such projects converge into a broader movement which takes the perspective of the disadvantaged, threatened and excluded; a movement, which would seek to implement its projects allied with a supportive middle class, have an anti-hegemonic orientation, wants to establish the greatest possible degree of self-organisation for those affected and endeavours to expand open spaces and democratic participation, to flexibly combine diverse violence-free (or in certain cases low-level violence) forms, which exploit contradictions within the ruling bloc and so forth. Such a politics would strive to strengthen tendencies in current society that transcend capitalism. It seeks out points of rupture capable of rendering such transformations irreversibly ‘Towards a deeper transformation of all of society’ (Candeias in this text). Within this context, Joachim Hirsch (2005, 232) talks of radical reformism that transforms the relations of power in society and ‘consciously opposes and transcends capitalist social modes’.

Structurally, left-wing politics is characterised by the antinomy of a demand for a change of system and the fight for reforms. Whether actors are capable of developing a revolutionary realpolitik depends on their capacity to find mutually supportive forms of handling these contradictions and adopt progressive solutions (cf Brie 2009). The contradiction between the radical, the revolutionary claim to transform all of society into a real life within the ‘true’, and work in the here and now cannot be resolved, it can only be worked on – individually, jointly with others, with initiatives, movements, in social organisations, through specific projects and through solidarity. Revolutionary realpolitik is practical politics specifically, with transformation-oriented objectives and means.


Revolutionary realpolitik II

by Mario Candeias

Left-wing movements, groups and parties are divided regarding the question as to whether capitalism can be reformed or needs to be combatted in principle. However, this is a false set of alternatives. There can be no leap into something completely different. Strategies of transformation always begin with reform. Whether they pave a way into a different society, as well as the relationship between short and long term perspectives, always has to be newly defined. Reform and revolution, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote, are not ‘different methods’, but ‘different factors in the development’ that mutually ‘condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.’ (1899, 89)

For many people on the Left, capitalism is a system based on exploitation, war, pauperisation and environmental destruction. It is a system that cannot be reformed, not at least in any meaningful way. All too often reforms have been used to multiply strategies of exploitation, water them down or foist the burden of violent relations of power on to other global regions and peoples. The only alternative therefore would be revolutionary transformation, even if the power relations contradict such an option.

Others point out that in the past socialist revolutions have either failed, brought about more repressive state socialist systems, or mutated into tyranny. Some are finding it hard to even conceive of an alternative. All too often, left-wing counter models for society have proven ineffectual, and the innovative dynamics of capitalism to quash alternatives and modernise leaves too strong an impression. Overcoming the capitalist mode of production and bourgeois rule seems a futile task.

The limits of reformism

Capitalism comes in different guises. In unfavourable conditions, reforms at least always served to improve the immediate situation of the exploited, subjugated and oppressed. In more favourable conditions, they allowed the Left to gain ground, expand and secure its scope for action. As with every reform, hard-won social advances such as limits to working time, salary increases, social security, ecological modernisation and progressive democratisation are fragile and innately contradictory compromises. They are the product of social struggles which could subsequently be integrated into the capitalist dynamic. A slowing of accumulation or a shift in the power relations threaten these achievements. Far-reaching measures fail if they reduce the profit rate, cost capital too much or threaten its power. Struggling for reforms is absolutely necessary, yet this struggle is limited to a pre-defined space within a framework which is compatible with the capitalist logic of exploitation. ‘That is why people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution’ limit themselves to ‘the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of suppression of capitalism itself.’ (Luxemburg 1899, 90).

There is no alternative to a struggle to limit capitalism’s socially and environmentally destructive dynamics – however, such struggles have limits: in line with the thinking of the constitutional theorist Nicos Poulantzas, the bourgeois state should be understood as a condensation of societal power relations which means that it can be reformed. It must however fulfil two functions: one general and one specific. The general function consists in securing social cohesion in a society split into classes. Its specific function is to ensure the overall conditions for reproduction of capital accumulation (which provides its basis of existence through taxation). These functions exert limitations on reforms within capitalism. As soon as one function is no longer given, the state loses its legitimacy and viability.

The situation is similar to the limitations of regulating the market. Whilst the market is always politically created, it cannot be regulated at will, in other words significantly limited in its negative effects, without at the same time losing its ability to function. Likewise, the function of capital is not based merely on the innovative and efficient (re-)combination of labour power, means of production and resources, but also on the production of a growing surplus value, i.e. exploitation, and continuous accumulation, i.e. growth. If one of the two is limited, capital loses its basis of existence and therefore also its innovative moments. There is a contradiction between capitalist production and ecology and there are limitations to the principle of the welfare state in capitalism. Any left-wing politics has to analyse how to develop policies within these limitations, overcome these limitations and liberate and re-organise the innovative moments from the form of capital.

Transformative perspectives

A realistic politics of the day ‘that only sets itself achievable goals that it pursues to obtain by the most effective means in the shortest time’ (Luxemburg 1903, 373) therefore falls short of the objective. What may appear unrealistic in daily politics is actually necessary from the point of view of the ‘historical tendency of development’ of a crisis-driven capitalism which always calls into question again all social advances, as Luxemburg writes in her article on Karl Marx (ibid.). However, system-hopping is not possible. There is therefore a need for transformative steps that can be implemented straight away, which immediately improve conditions for individual people. Such instant measures at the same time need to provide a perspective and indicate the next steps towards a deeper transformation of all of society.

Revolutionary realpolitik according to Rosa Luxemburg solves the false contradiction between reform and revolution, or makes it possible to work with contradictions. Revolutionary refers to the sweeping, transformational form of a policy that gets to the root of a problem, and not so much the violent turning point of a revolutionary seizing of power. To wish for or talk oneself into such a point is not possible. Concentrating on a rupture would mean becoming politically incapable of acting, condemning yourself to revolutionary waiting. What appears radical is then no longer good for intervention.

Luxemburg’s reference to realism reinforces this: acting in full awareness of the social power relations, but within the perspective of their transformation; in connection with the realities and contradictions through which we all have to navigate, and the concerns and everyday interests of each individual; connecting to the individual interests and passions, but re-formulating them – ethically politically, as Gramsci writes – so that the immediate individual interests of the diverse groups (still isolated from each other) and class factions can be overcome and generalised into the interests of other groups and class factions. The aim is to develop a perspective of transformation in such a way that it goes ‘in all the parts of its endeavours beyond the bounds of the existing order in which it operates’ – this is how Rosa Luxemburg describes the dialectics of revolutionary realpolitik (ibid.).

This is about the bigger picture, the shared control over the immediate living conditions and the shaping of futures. This is more than a desirable long-term objective. Rather, such a political compass prevents a return to corporatist, i.e. narrow group interests. Struggles or individual reforms have to be anchored within the perspective of a fundamental transformation of society, otherwise activists are ultimately threatened by even greater subjugation, namely that their individual interests become integrated into the dominant bloc in the form of compromises. The overall context of diverse emancipatory demands can always again be parcelled ‘from above’, to disarticulate social issues and isolate social groups.

A number of anti-systemic demands may protect against appropriation, yet this comes at the expense of an isolated, marginal position which cannot be connected. It requires a positive, transformational and integrating project that begins with reforms within capitalism and gives them a direction – and is capable of conceiving of and bringing about ruptures within the existing system. The protagonist of such a process can only be a participation-oriented Left with the firm objective of transforming society that empowers individuals to take control of the rudder of their own history.

Revolutionary realpolitik II was first published in: ABC der Alternativen 2.0., Hamburg 2012, 352 − 353


Bernstein, Eduard, 1897: Probleme des Sozialismus. Eigenes und Übersetztes von Eduard Bernstein. 1. Allgemeines über Utopismus und Eklektizismus, in: Die Neue Zeit, 15/6, 164−171

Brie, Michael, 2009 (Ed.): Radikale Realpolitik. Plädoyer für eine andere Politik, Berlin

Haug, Frigga, 2009: Revolutionäre Realpolitik – die Vier-in-einem-Perspektive, in: Brie, Michael (Ed.), Radikale Realpolitik, 11−26

Hirsch, Joachim, 2005: Materialistische Staats-
theorie. Transformationsprozesse des kapitalistischen Staatensystems, Hamburg

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1899: Reform or Revolution, Mineola NY 2006

—. 1906a: Brief an Mathilde und Emanuel Wurm vom 18. Juli 1906, in: GB 2, 258−259

—. 1906b: The Mass Strike, in: The Essential Rosa Luxemburg, Scott, Helen (Ed.), Chicago 2008

—. 1903: Karl Marx, in: GW, 1.2, 369−377

—. 1913: Taktische Fragen, in: GW 3, Berlin, 246−258

—. 1918a: Rede für die Beteiligung der KPD an den Wahlen zur Nationalversammlung, in: GW 4, 481−487

—. 1918b: The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Hudis Peter/Anderson Kevin B. (Ed.), New York 2004