Rosa Luxemburg: An Introduction

Previous posts have commented on a diverse set of economists – Krishna Bharadwaj, Pierangelo Garegnani, Alfred Marshall, V K R V Rao, Knut Wicksell among others. In a similar manner, this blog post discusses the main ideas of the economic theorist, Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919). Born in Zamosc, she studied philosophy and natural sciences and then moved to economics. Her PhD thesis is an empirical analysis of Poland’s industrial sector which was seen to depend on backward eastern markets. This statistical finding would later develop into a theoretical one.

She studied Marx’s work closely and critically. The three volumes of Capital demonstrate the workings of a capitalist economy characterised by wage labour and profit maximization. According to Marx, a capitalist system is able to reproduce itself by maintaining a sizeable reserve army of labour and by appropriating the surplus value created by the workers. However, Marx sees the possibility of crisis in a capitalist economy where production decisions are unplanned and are coordinated by different markets. Luxemburg asks a related yet different question: how does capitalism survive in the real world? Or, in her words, ‘what are the objective historical limits to capitalism?’ This question resulted in her main work, The Accumulation of Capital.

Luxemburg answers this question by extending Marx’s analysis after making certain modification. First, Marx conducts his analysis by examining the fundamental units of capitalism – that of a commodity and the workings of individual capital. This working is succinctly encapsulated in the relation M-C-M^ where M^ is greater in value than M. Second, his theoretical investigation is restricted to that of a capitalist system. Luxemburg looks at the total capital, an aggregate magnitude. Some commentators consider this to be one of the early attempts at a macroeconomic analysis. Moreover, in her attempt to understand the workings of capitalism in the real world, she introduces a real-life facet – that of the existence of both capitalist and non-capitalist systems. These modifications lead her to the conclusion that capitalist systems depend on and exploit non-capitalist systems for their survival. The exchange which takes place between these two systems stops the capitalist enterprise from crumbling.

In The Accumulation of Capital – An Anti-Critique (1972), she clarifies the differences involved in studying individual units versus aggregate ones: “…the standpoint of total capital differs basically from that of the individual employer. For the individual, the luxury of’ high society’ is a desirable expansion of sales, i.e. a splendid opportunity for accumulation. For all capitalists as a class, the total consumption of the surplus value as luxury is sheer lunacy, economic suicide, for it is the destruction of accumulation at its roots” (p. 56). This important methodological fact has been overlooked by neoclassical economics where the aggregate is seen to behave in a similar way as its individual parts. This is clearly untrue and their reasoning commits the fallacy of composition. Such discussions by Luxemburg were certainly a methodological improvement.

The major (historico-)theoretical insight she provided relates to the manner in which capitalist systems avoid permanent crises. Luxemburg argues that capitalism survives based on its coercive relations with non-capitalist systems. She poses the question thus:

“After we have assumed that accumulation has started and that the increased production throws an even bigger amount of commodities on to the market the following year, the same question arises again: where do we then find the consumers for this even greater amount of commodities?” (p. 57).

Her answer follows.

“They must be producers, whose means of production are not to be seen as capital, and who belong to neither of the two classes – capitalists or workers – but who still have a need, one way or another, for capitalist commodities” (p. 57).

She elaborates this further.

“In reality, capitalist production is not the sole and completely dominant form of production, as everyone knows, and as Marx himself stresses in Capital. In reality, there are in all capitalist countries, even in those with the most developed large-scale industry, numerous artisan and peasant enterprises which are engaged in simple commodity production” (p. 58).

To conclude, Luxemburg made positive contributions to economic methodology and theory. Her analysis of accumulation can prove useful in countries like India where non-capitalist production systems are very prevalent. In addition, it can enrich the analysis of economic relations between the developed and developing countries.


(1951), The Accumulation of Capital, trans. Agnes Schwarzschild, intro. Joan Robinson, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

(1972), The Accumulation of Capital – An Anti-Critique, ed. and intro. Kenneth Tarbuck, trans. Rudolf Wichmann, New York: Monthly Review Press.

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