Organisation and action for social change

Political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote a brilliant commentary on a biography of Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-German socialist revolutionary murdered in Berlin in 1919. I came across it recently in a collection of Arendt’s essays, and I just want to note a couple of points which really stand out for me.

First, Luxemburg made a very important observation about party politics. The leading light of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in pre-WWI Germany, August Bebel, claimed that he was and always would be “the mortal enemy of existing society.” But, according to Arendt, “the secret of this defiance was wilful non-involvement with the world at large and single-minded preoccupation with the growth of the Party organization.”

Luxemburg was also a thinker and a writer – she obtained her doctorate in 1898 and produced hundreds of articles and pamphlets. But she knew that this was not enough – she did not wish to “spend her life in a sect, no matter how large,” because she realised that the spirit of social and political change was “doomed to dry up” without her “program of constant ‘friction’ with society.”

The commitment to social change is primarily a moral matter; for Luxemburg this knowledge meant that she remained “passionately engaged in public life and civil affairs, in the destinies of the world.”

In the modern context, we can easily remain at a safe distance from action, merely taking out passive financial membership of this or that worthy group, assuming a detached academic ‘observer’ or ‘commentator’ role, or simply adopting an ironic indifference to civil society. But if we do, the spirit of social and political change will most certainly dry up.

So what is the proper relationship between organisation and action? Luxemburg’s view on this arose from her involvement with the workers’ councils which operated in Warsaw during the 1905 Russian Revolution. She saw that “good organization does not precede action but is the product of it.”

In other words, organisation for social change can’t be described in or learned from a book or a blog; it can and must be learned through activism itself, “as one can only learn swimming in the water.”


Hannah Arendt (2000) “Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919)” in Peter Baehr (ed.) The Portable Hannah Arendt (pp.419-437). New York: Penguin.

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