The Materialist Constitutional Thought of Rosa Luxemburg (Part Three) — Camila Vergara

[This is the third in a series of three posts on materialist constitutionalism by Camila Vergara. The first two posts are available here and here.]

Luxemburg’s Transitional Constitutional Structure

Socialism, which appears to be tied constitutively to local councils as sites of self-rule, cannot be established by decree but “can only be won by a long chain of powerful struggles, in which the proletariat, under the leadership of the Social Democracy, will learn to take hold of the rudder of society to become instead of the powerless victim of history, its conscious guide”. [1] The only way for workers to undergo this transformation from a dominated to an empowered class is by exercising power in the “school of action” [2], “through constant, vital, reciprocal contact between the masses of the people and their organs, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils”. [3] The masses need to be educated in the art of power by wielding power, and in this process transform “themselves into the free and independent directors of this process”, with the sense of “responsibility proper to active members of the collectivity”. [4]

Our motto is: In the beginning was the act. And the act must be that the workers’ and soldiers’ councils realize their mission and learn to become the sole public power of the whole nation. [5]

Since without the material conditions for local worker power, “the naked decrees of socialization by the highest revolutionary authorities are by themselves empty phrases” [6], the main revolutionary task is to promote a proletarian institutional structure: councils as constituent institutions. If the final objective of the movement is socialist society, in which the working classes are free from domination, not being “ruled over” but ruling themselves, the immediate objective of the movement should be to “replace the inherited organs of bourgeois class rule” which dominate the working class with a working-class political infrastructure oriented toward self-rule–toward the cultivation of political character and activity among the proletariat so as to train it to “occupy all the posts, supervise all functions, measure all official needs by the standard of its own class interests and the tasks of socialism”. [7] In order to achieve this end, Luxemburg argues in favour of active organizing and institution-building at the local level, “down to the tiniest parish”.

It is a question of fighting step by step, hand-to-hand, in every province, in every city, in every village, in every municipality in order to take and transfer all the powers of the state bit by bit from the bourgeoisie to the workers and soldiers’ councils. [8]

Among the first necessary steps the revolutionary government should take to foster the council system are the following: (1) the improvement of the councils, “so that the first chaotic and impulsive gestures of their formation are replaced by a conscious process of understanding the goals, tasks and methods of the revolution”; (2) ensuring that they have regularly scheduled meetings and adequate power-sharing processes; and (3) the formation of a “national council of workers and soldiers in order to establish the proletariat of all Germany as a class, as a compact political power, and to make it the bulwark and impetus of the revolution”. [9] The revolutionary government would therefore have the task not only of systematizing and standardizing the procedures of self-rule used in the councils, but also of establishing a new national institution that would further construct the workers’ class identity, empowering them to keep energizing the revolutionary process. The organized masses are for Luxemburg the agents and guardians of the emancipatory process, and therefore the duty of the revolutionary government, elected by the masses to take control of the state and wield its power, is to foster the institutional organization of the proletarian masses. The party should not be guided by centralist or revisionist strategies, but by the need to strengthen the council system.

Luxemburg’s materialist approach led her to understand that revolution, the political action that is the origin of constitution, is conditioned by the current stage of class struggle and the legal and extra-legal means available to the masses. Political action, the “deed”, is the starting point of the revolution, and the factors conditioning such action become a constitutive part of it. Being not only a materialist thinker, but also very much a realist like Engels, Luxemburg envisioned a period of transition between capitalist and socialist societies, a regime in which both bourgeois and proletarian institutions would coexist. Even if she did not propose a proper constitutional structure for this transitional period, her material legal thought reveals two basic elements the revolutionary constitution must have in order to enable the path to socialism: democratic rights to ensure the conquest of representative structures, and local, autonomous working-class councils as constitutive institutions of the new socialist society. As I discussed in the previous part of this three-part post, democratic rights need to be not only formally respected but also equally exercised, and this requires the socialization of burdens that prevent proletarians from engaging in political action. In the case of proletarian women, for example, the socialization of childcare and domestic labour would be a necessary condition for their equal access to politics. [10]

What makes the proletarian revolution radically distinct from bourgeois revolution is the spontaneous organizing of the masses in councils. This, for Luxemburg, is “the stamp of a proletarian socialist revolution”. [11] Even if Luxemburg does not mention the exercise of constituent power in this spontaneous self-constitution of councils, this is the power that workers (and soldiers) actually wield when defying the existing structures of power and setting up their own autonomous political institutions of self-rule. The establishment of local worker councils marks the origin of a constituent revolution “from below”, and therefore its fate is tied to the strength of the council system, which is supposed to replace the bourgeois ruling structure in the long run. This transitional phase, in which the new proletarian institution is added to the existing political structure, corresponds to the type of “composite” constitutionalism endorsed by Machiavelli; because it is realist, it does not seek to abolish current oligarchic structures of power, but to add new autonomous institutions resting on plebeian authority rather than existing legality. The mere existence of an institutional source of proletarian authority, even if not properly “constitutionalized”, would imply the recognition of organized proletarians as political agents, and establish the institutionalization of class conflict. Moreover, the continual agonistic opposition of the councils to liberal representative structures appears as the effective cause of the revolution during this transitional period, which is completed when proletarian institutions acquire supreme authority and decision-making power and a new legality expresses a socialist society rather than a capitalist one. Through Luxemburg’s materialist approach, the establishment and development of proletarian organs of power, far from being an idealist position, appears as the necessary material ground from which the new socialist society can begin to be collectively conceived.

[1] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Junius Pamphlet” [1915], available at:

[2] Rosa Luxemburg, “Our Program and the Political Situation” [1918], in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 357, at 372; also available (in different translation) at

[3] Rosa Luxemburg, “What Does the Spartacus League Want?” [1918], in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 349, at 351; also available (in different translation) at

[4] Luxemburg, “What Does the Spartacus League Want?”, 351.

[5] Luxemburg, “Our Program and the Political Situation”, 372.

[6] Luxemburg, “What does the Spartacus League Want?”, 351.

[7] Luxemburg, “What does the Spartacus League Want?”, 351.

[8] Luxemburg, “Our Program and the Political Situation”, 372.

[9] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Beginning” [1918], in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 342, at 343–44; also available (in different translation) at

[10] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Proletarian Woman” [1914] and “The Socialization of Society” [1918], in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 242 and 346; also available (in different translation) at

[11] Luxemburg, “Our Program and the Political Situation”, 366.

Camila Vergara is a PhD candidate in political theory at Columbia University, specializing in legal and constitutional theory. Her dissertation theorizes the crisis of democracy from a structural point of view and develops a plebeian strand of constitutional thought that seeks to institutionalize experiences of popular resistance against oligarchic domination.