The Early Reception of Rosa Luxemburg's Theory of Imperialism

By Gaido, Daniel; Quiroga, Manuel | Capital & Class, October 2013 | Go to article overview

The Early Reception of Rosa Luxemburg's Theory of Imperialism


Gaido, Daniel, Quiroga, Manuel, Capital & Class


The Second International and the theory of imperialism

According to the historians Richard Koebner and Helmut Dan Schmidt, the word impdrialisme began to be used in the second half of the 19th century as a neologism along with the word bonapartisme, to indicate the diverse forms in which the Second French Empire of Louis Napoleon (1852-70) maintained its rule over France (Koebner and Schmidt 1965: 1). Marx also used the term Imperialismus to denote the political regime of France in his book, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Marx 1852). Thus,

the word did not correspond to its modern meaning, which was not developed explicitly in Marx and Engels' work.

Given the role of the United Kingdom as the dominant imperialist power in the final part of the 19th century, it is not strange that one of the first registered uses of the word in the modern sense, in socialist circles, should have been in the article by Ernest Belfort Bax, 'Imperialism vs. socialism', published in February 1885 in The Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League. Bax's argument was that imperialism resulted from the search for external markets in which to dispose of the surplus created by overproduction in the old capitalist countries (Bax 1885). Bax's position on the colonial question was extreme for his time, not only because he rejected any kind of colonialism, but also because of his stand in defence of armed struggle by the colonised nations against their European oppressors (Bax 1896a). It is, therefore, not by chance that Bax was the first to attack the revision of Marxist theory by Eduard Bernstein, starting the polemic known as the 'revisionist controversy' that resulted in a split among Marxists all over the world, between revisionist and 'orthodox' Marxists (Bax 1896b).

The debate over imperialism in the German SPD

The debate over imperialism as such--as different from the former debates on Kolonialpolitik--first appeared in the ranks of the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) as a result of two historical events: the Spanish-American war in 1898, and the Second Boer War (1899-1902). (1) In September 1900, the SPD held a congress in the city of Mainz, which adopted a resolution condemning German world-policy (Weltpolitik), opposing the creation of a German protectorate in Kiautschou (Jiaozhou) and the repression of the Boxer Rebellion by the Western powers. At that congress, Rosa Luxemburg characterised the events in China as 'a bloody war of united capitalist Europe against Asia', and a 'turning point' in world history (Luxemburg 1972, Vol. 1/1: 800). The Congress of the Socialist International, held in Paris a few days later also adopted a resolution on colonial policy, written by Rosa Luxemburg, which condemned 'imperialism, its necessary consequence' because 'it incites chauvinism in every country', forcing them to make 'ever growing payments to support militarism'. (2)

In 1910, a split took place among the 'orthodox' Marxists in the SPD, between a centre wing led by Karl Kautsky, and a left wing that gradually grouped around Rosa Luxemburg. The reason for the split was the debate over the mass strike, a form of direct action that was growingly rejected by the Kautskyists in favour of parliamentary struggle. (3) Although the issue of imperialism was not the original reason for the polemic, in the framework of this debate Kautsky began to argue that imperialism was not the result of an economic need inherent to capitalism at certain stage of its development, but a contingent policy adopted by the bourgeoisie in a certain historical context marked by colonial rivalries (a policy that was, thus, reversible). Kautsky drew from this analysis a reformist political conclusion: that it was necessary to adopt a course of action that would convince the bourgeois parties of the advisability of adopting a foreign policy based on disarmament and on diplomatic agreements, to which were occasionally added other elements such as arbitration courts for international disputes (Ratz 1966). …

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