Wellred Books is proud to announce the forthcoming release of an important new title by Marie Frederiksen, The Revolutionary Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg. This great revolutionary martyr has often been misrepresented as an opponent of the October Revolution, and as standing for some sort of ‘softer’, ‘anti-authoritarian’ Marxism as against that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
But as Fred Weston and Parson Young explain in this article from the forthcoming issue of In Defence of Marxism magazine: these are so many myths about Luxemburg, and it is about time to set the record straight.
On Saturday 15 January, the anniversary of the murder of Luxemburg, WellRed Books will host an exclusive online Q&A and book launch of The Revolutionary Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, with the author Marie Frederiksen. REGISTER HERE. Pre-order your copy of the book here.
Rosa Luxemburg was an outstanding revolutionary Marxist, who played a key role in fighting the opportunist degeneration of German Social Democracy, and in the founding of the German Communist Party. Unfortunately, however, some of her writings and speeches are often used to create a completely false picture of what she stood for, presenting her as an opponent of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
So-called ‘Luxemburgists’ present her as a champion of working-class creativity and ‘spontaneity’, in opposition to the ‘ultra-centralist’ Lenin who, supposedly, sought to crush the initiative of the workers and bring them under heel. By building up this image of Luxemburg, left reformists, anarchists, ‘libertarian communists’ and even bourgeois liberals aim to use the authority of this great revolutionary as a battering ram against Leninism. On this basis, the concept of ‘Luxemburgism’ has been invented, as if it were a distinct trend within the tradition of Marxism.
This so-called ‘Luxemburgism’ has an attraction to a layer of honest young communists who seek an alternative version of Marxism to what they regard as ‘Leninism’. The reason they are seeking such an alternative is because the Stalinist, bureaucratic caricature of socialism – embodied in the USSR under Stalin, and later replicated in Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam and other regimes – has been portrayed as ‘Leninist’ (or ‘Marxist-Leninist’, as Stalinists today like to describe themselves).
However, it is sufficient to read Lenin’s Last Testament (‘Last Testament’ Letters to the Congress, December 1922 - January 1923) to see that he was already becoming concerned at the bureaucratic tendencies that were emerging in the Soviet Union even before he died, and he suggested measures to combat them. Stalinism, rather than being the natural child of Leninism, is a complete negation of what Lenin stood for. Our latter-day Luxemburgists conveniently ignore this fact.
We have to ask ourselves, therefore, what does this ‘Luxemburgism’ actually consist of? Is it so different from the revolutionary Marxism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks? A serious study of Rosa Luxemburg’s writings, her whole life and everything she fought for, reveals that the real Rosa was a revolutionary. At a time when the world workers’ movement split into revolutionary and reformist camps, Luxemburg was on the same side of the barricades as the Bolsheviks. In the same way that the Bolsheviks fought the opportunist current of Menshevism, Luxemburg waged a battle against the opportunist degeneration of the Social-Democratic leaders in Germany. In spite of this or that criticism that she held at different moments, she fully backed the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
Nevertheless, a number of myths persist that attempt to depict Rosa Luxemburg as an opponent of Bolshevism. The first of these is the idea that Luxemburg stood for the spontaneity of the masses as opposed to the Leninist model of the revolutionary party. We can read a prime example of such distortions in what is written about her by the ‘Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’ – a think tank in Germany affiliated with the left-reformist Die Linke party:
“Luxemburg criticized Lenin for his conception of a highly centralized party vanguard; according to Luxemburg, it was an attempt to put the working class under tutelage. Her arguments—characteristic of all her work—comprised factors such as independent initiative, the workers’ activity, their ability to learn through their own experience and mistakes, and the need for a grassroots democratic organization.”
Similarly, Noam Chomsky – who claims to be an anarcho-syndicalist and libertarian socialist – paints Lenin as a conspiratorial hijacker of the Russian Revolution who destroyed its potential to develop communism. He presents Luxemburg as having warned against this:
“Although some of the critics, like Rosa Luxemburg, pointed out that Lenin’s program, which they regarded as pretty right-wing, and I do too, was, the image was, that there would be a proletarian revolution, the party will take over from the proletariat, the central committee would take over from the party and the maximal leader will take over from the central committee.”
This kind of thinking completely ignores the conditions in which the Russian Revolution took place and, most importantly, the consequences of its isolation in a backward country. Thus, according to these superficial critics, the roots of the monstrous Stalinist regime that arose later are not to be found in the objective conditions but in the ideas and methods of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Such an analysis simplifies to the degree that it is impossible to understand the real objective causes of the bureaucratic degeneration, i.e. the isolation of the Russian Revolution to one very backward country. It relies instead on a subjective explanation of Lenin’s supposed dictatorial tendencies.
Spontaneity and leadership
What was Rosa Luxemburg’s real view on the question of the ‘spontaneity’ of the masses? How did she view the relationship of the party to the spontaneous action of the masses? And did her views actually differ fundamentally from those of Lenin? Her pamphlet, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, is one of her works used by those who claim she was fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism. It is argued that in this pamphlet, which analyses the strength of the spontaneous mass strike movement of the 1905 Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg dismisses the concept of revolutionary leadership. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and completely misses the point of why she wrote it and against whom she was polemicising.
The pamphlet was written just as a wave of strikes was sweeping across Germany, inspired by the 1905 revolution, which was very popular amongst the German working class. Unlike Russia, where trade unions were very weak and the forces of Marxism were small, Germany had mass trade unions and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was a mass force. The problem was that the leaders of the SPD and the trade unions in Germany exhibited a passive and sometimes even a derisive attitude towards these spontaneous strikes.
Whereas Rosa Luxemburg and the revolutionary wing of the party welcomed the strikes and posed the need for the party to intervene, the right-wing SPD leaders dismissed them as premature and doomed to failure. Many SPD leaders claimed that only struggles that were planned and organised by the party in advance could succeed. Therefore all other manifestations from below were fundamentally meaningless. This was, in reality, an indication that these leaders were abandoning the idea of a revolutionary struggle against capitalism itself.
This was precisely what Luxemburg’s Mass Strike pamphlet was arguing against. She was not arguing against the Bolsheviks, but rather against the opportunist leaders of the SPD. Her goal was not to dismiss the need for leadership, but rather to push the SPD leaders into actively intervening in these spontaneous struggles precisely because they needed political leadership. As Rosa wrote:
“To fix beforehand the cause and the moment from and in which the mass strikes in Germany will break out is not in the power of social democracy, because it is not in its power to bring about historical situations by resolutions at party congresses. But what it can and must do is to make clear the political tendencies, when they once appear, and to formulate them as resolute and consistent tactics. Man cannot keep historical events in check while making recipes for them, but he can see in advance their apparent calculable consequences and arrange his mode of action accordingly.”
Any serious analysis will show that both Luxemburg and Lenin agreed that the revolutionary party’s task was not to impose a pre-existing schema upon the masses and dictate a schedule for revolution according to its own whim. They both understood that the masses move at their own pace, and when events erupt the task of revolutionaries is to understand them and intervene in them to provide leadership.
Take, for example, the workers’ councils (soviets) that emerged during the Russian Revolution of 1905. These new organs of workers’ power were a creation of the Russian workers, an expression of the spontaneity and creativity of the working class. The ranks of the Bolsheviks inside Russia did not recognise their significance, and even tried to impose an ultimatum on the soviets that they submit to the party’s control. But Lenin clearly disagreed. In Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies (November, 1905), he wrote:
“I think that it is wrong to put the question in this way and that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and the Party. The only question—and a highly important one—is how to divide, and how to combine, the tasks of the Soviet and those of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. I think it would be inadvisable for the Soviet to adhere wholly to any one party.”
Lenin recognised that revolutionaries should join the soviets in order to win over the working-class masses that had created them as organs of workers’ power. This was the very same strategy that Lenin maintained until the success of the October Revolution in 1917. In his April Theses published in April 1917, Lenin summed up the task of the Bolsheviks in relation to the masses:
“The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic, and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.”
Here we can find no fundamental difference between Lenin and Luxemburg in their understanding of the necessarily spontaneous nature of the outbreak of struggles, but also of the need for revolutionaries to politically intervene.
Were there any differences between Lenin and Luxemburg? Of course there were, but as Marie Frederiksen shows in her soon-to-be-published work, these were not about whether a revolution needed organisation and leadership or not:
“A disagreement was expressed on the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s… congress of 1907 in which Luxemburg criticised the Bolsheviks for putting too much emphasis on the technical side of the uprising in the 1905 Revolution, while believing that they ought instead to have focused on giving the movement political leadership. In this sense, Luxemburg’s approach to the revolution was abstract: the masses will move, and when they do it is up to the party to provide the correct political programme. From her experience in the SPD, focus on the practical side of organising was the hallmark of a conservative leadership that held back the movement of the masses. Instead of rejecting the bureaucratic character of the SPD, she rejected the technical, practical side of organising altogether as an evil in and of itself. Luxemburg seemed to believe that the movement of the masses itself would solve the problem of organisation and leadership.”
It is abundantly clear that, even when Rosa Luxemburg was making criticisms of the Bolsheviks, she did not reject the need for a political leadership in general, just as Lenin did not reject the spontaneity of mass struggles. What the two differed on was the degree of emphasis revolutionaries should place on the practical tasks of intervening in the mass struggles. On this question, however, Luxemburg was proven to be wrong in her earlier writing, as the act of intervening in and winning over the masses involves highly practical tasks in order to be successful. The experience of the October Revolution would prove that it was precisely the existence of the Bolshevik Party, a highly disciplined and educated organisation with cadres in key workplaces and neighbourhoods, that allowed the Russian workers to take power. Furthermore, towards the end of her life, Luxemburg worked towards building a party along similar lines in Germany.
The inescapable conclusion from what we have been highlighting is that the supposed gulf between these two outstanding Marxists on this question is highly exaggerated. The aim of this exaggeration is to distort the truth in order to ward workers and youth away from a genuine revolutionary outlook, and in particular from the need to build a mass revolutionary party as an essential prerequisite for a victorious socialist revolution.
Bolshevism, Menshevism and Rosa Luxemburg
Whenever currents on the left have begun diverging from a revolutionary standpoint, they have never openly admitted that what they are doing is betraying the basic interests of the working class. Instead, they will often seek this or that authoritative figure of the movement whose words they can distort and exaggerate in order to justify their own bankruptcy. Unfortunately, Rosa Luxemburg has been the victim of such methods time and time again. She is quoted out of context, or criticisms that she later abandoned are dishonestly used to present her as being fundamentally opposed to Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
In particular, the myth has been woven that Luxemburg stood for genuine workers' democracy in opposition to the dictatorial methods of ‘Leninism’. This myth draws from her writings in a 1904 pamphlet called “Organisational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy,” where she denounced Lenin and the Bolsheviks for their “ultra-centralism” and even “Blanquism” – that is, the idea of organising a socialist revolution totally controlled by a small conspiratorial group of revolutionary leaders. In reality, Luxemburg did not understand what Lenin was striving for – at that moment in time.
Those who use this to try to separate Rosa Luxemburg from Lenin ignore the real development of her later thinking. Only a few years later, Luxemburg abandoned these views. Later on, she would set herself the aim, along with Karl Liebknecht, of transforming the Spartacus League into the German Communist Party – a section of the Communist International led, at that time, by Lenin and Trotsky. To attempt, on this basis, to paint Luxemburg as diametrically opposed to Leninism, is sheer dishonesty.
These same currents falsify what Lenin and the Bolsheviks really stood for in order to facilitate this myth-building. The Bolshevik Party is presented as having a monolithic, highly centralised regime under Lenin, where no debate was possible and where there was no internal democracy. The truth is that the history of the Bolshevik Party reveals that there was the fullest freedom of internal debate, with different opinions being freely discussed.
What the reformist critics of the Bolshevik Party really object to is the fact that the party was not a debating club, but a fighting, revolutionary organisation of the advanced layers of the working class. Its task was to clarify questions of programme, methods and tactics and to build a disciplined party whose aim was the overthrow of the capitalist system. Its internal life was governed by the principles of democratic centralism: once an internal debate had taken place on any question, a vote would be held and the majority view would become the policy of the party. On that basis, the whole membership would then be required to take the democratically agreed positions into the wider labour movement.
This has nothing to do with the caricature of Bolshevism drawn by the reformists. Their lie about Bolshevism as nothing but a conspiracy and a dictatorship in party form is complemented by the lie about Luxemburg as someone who stood up against Lenin in the name of democracy. In doing so they conveniently ignore what she wrote a mere two years later in 1906 in Blanquism and Social Democracy, in which she defended Lenin against the charges of Blanquism and attacked the Mensheviks for their opportunism:
“If today the Bolshevik comrades speak of the dictatorship of the proletariat, they have never given it the old Blanquist meaning; neither have they ever made the mistake of Narodnaya Volya, which dreamt of ‘taking power for itself’ (zachvat vlasti). On the contrary, they have affirmed that the present revolution will succeed when the proletariat – all the revolutionary class – takes possession of the state machine.
“It is high time to finish with such scholasticism and all this hullabaloo to identify who is a ‘Blanquist’ and who is an ‘orthodox Marxist’. Rather we need to know if the tactic recommended by comrade Plekhanov and his Menshevik comrades, which aims to work through the duma as far as possible, is correct now; or, on the contrary, if the tactic we are applying, just like the Bolshevik comrades, is correct – the tactic based on the principle that the centre of gravity is situated outside the duma, in the active appearance of the popular revolutionary masses.”
And a year later, in a speech she gave in 1907 at the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party – where both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were present in one reunified party – she again defended the Bolsheviks from charges of ‘rigidity’ and ‘narrowness’ in terms of organisation:
“It is possible that Polish comrades, who are accustomed to thinking more or less in ways adopted by the West-European movement, find this particular steadfastness [of the Bolsheviks] even more startling than you do. But do you know, comrades, where all these disagreeable features come from? These features are very familiar to someone acquainted with internal party relations in other countries: they represent the typical spiritual character of that trend within socialism that has to defend the very principle of the proletariat’s independent class policy against an opposing trend that is also very strong. (Applause.)
“Rigidity is the form taken by Social-Democratic tactics on the one side, when the other side represents the formlessness of jelly that creeps in every direction under the pressure of events. (Applause from the Bolsheviks and parts of the Centre.)”
The conclusion here is clear. What Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and the Bolsheviks all stood for, more than anything else, was precisely “the proletariat’s independent class policy”. In the struggle between Bolshevism and Menshevism, between revolutionary Marxism and reformism, Luxemburg stood firmly on the side of Lenin and the Bolsheviks against reformism, which is precisely the policy that the so-called ‘Luxemburgists’ today try to attribute to her. As Lenin later commented: “In 1907 she participated as a delegate of the SD of Poland and Lithuania in the London congress of the RSDLP, supporting the Bolshevik faction on all basic questions of the Russian revolution.”
Rosa Luxemburg and the Russian Revolution
Another text of Rosa Luxemburg that is used to pit her against the Bolsheviks is one she wrote privately but which she never decided to publish in her lifetime, entitled The Russian Revolution (1918). In this article she makes several criticisms of the actions of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. However, what the ‘Luxemburgists’ conveniently ignore is that Luxemburg was in prison when she wrote this article. She had been in prison since 1916 and was still incarcerated when the Russian Revolution took place. She could only get very partial information about the October Revolution and she wrote down her observations privately. After she was released from prison in 1918, aware of the fact that her analysis written in confinement would inevitably be imperfect, she refused to publish anything she had written on the Russian Revolution while in prison. This was because she knew full well that it would be distorted by the enemies of the revolution.
Clara Zetkin, who had a close relationship with Rosa Luxemburg, later testified that after she was released from prison in November 1918, she stated that her views had been wrong and were based on insufficient information. Rosa Luxemburg was capable of recognising when she had made a mistake, and there can be no confusion here about where Rosa Luxemburg stood in relation to the October Revolution: she fully backed it and the party that led it!
In fact, the 1918 text was only published later, in 1922 by Paul Levi, three years after Rosa’s death. He published it after his expulsion from the German Communist Party and the Third International for severely violating party discipline. He had never been given Rosa’s permission to publish the text – a very important detail that one has to bear in mind.
However, even in this text, one still finds that she was fully supportive of the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks from start to finish. Hers was a comradely criticism rather than a denunciation of October. If she had genuinely believed that Lenin was setting up a monstrous dictatorial regime, it is hard to imagine why she took the time to offer critical suggestions. Rather, she would have called on the Russian workers to oppose the Bolsheviks. This was clearly not the case. The article opens with the words, “The Russian Revolution is the mightiest event of the World War.” And this is how she ends the first section of the article:
“Moreover, the Bolsheviks immediately set as the aim of this seizure of power a complete, far reaching revolutionary program; not the safeguarding of bourgeois democracy, but a dictatorship of the proletariat for the purpose of realizing socialism. Thereby they won for themselves the imperishable historic distinction of having for the first time proclaimed the final aim of socialism as the direct program of practical politics.
“Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and all the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honour and capacity which western Social-Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honour of international socialism.”
And she concluded her article thus:
“What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the politics of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’
“This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia, the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism’.”
Only the German Revolution could have saved the Russian Revolution
Luxemburg, however, did not limit herself to supporting the Russian Revolution. She was also aware of the fact that the flaws in the Soviet regime were not the product of the intentions or ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, but of the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the backward conditions in the country. The solution was to break the isolation of the revolution by carrying out the German Revolution:
“Everything that happens in Russia is comprehensible and represents an inevitable chain of causes and effects, the starting point and end term of which are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism. It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions.”
She also denounced the Social-Democratic leaders in Germany who refused to support Soviet Russia because it was a “dictatorship”:
“Let the German Government Socialists cry that the rule of the Bolsheviks in Russia is a distorted expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat. If it was or is such, that is only because it is a product of the behaviour of the German proletariat, in itself a distorted expression of the socialist class struggle. All of us are subject to the laws of history, and it is only internationally that the socialist order of society can be realized.” [Our emphasis].
If we read this article in its entirety instead of picking and choosing quotes out of context in order to misrepresent her views, it is impossible for an honest commentator to interpret Rosa Luxemburg as being opposed to Lenin and Trotsky. She agreed with Lenin on all major questions. She agreed with the way that the October Revolution was carried out. She agreed with what Lenin and Trotsky had to do to defend the young Soviet Republic. And as a genuine internationalist, she understood that the German Revolution had to succeed in order to save (not defeat) the Russian Revolution.
The myth around the Constituent Assembly
Conservatives, bourgeois liberals, reformists and even some on the left, have criticised the Bolshevik government for disbanding the Constituent Assembly after the revolution – an act taken as evidence that Lenin and Trotsky were ‘anti-democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’. So-called supporters of Rosa Luxemburg also join this bandwagon, again quoting her 1918 text:
“But the Constituent Assembly and the suffrage law do not exhaust the matter. We did not consider above the destruction of the most important democratic guarantees of a healthy public life and of the political activity of the labouring masses: freedom of the press, the rights of association and assembly, which have been outlawed for all opponents of the Soviet regime.”
By presenting the situation faced by the Bolsheviks after the October revolution and using Rosa Luxemburg’s quote in this way, the ‘Luxemburgists’ ignore a crucial factor in the situation: the existence of the soviets as democratic organs of workers’ power.
Throughout their history, the Bolsheviks supported the call for a Constituent Assembly – which is essentially a bourgeois parliament – the convening of which would be a huge step forward from tsarist despotism. However, at the time of its dissolution in 1918, the Constituent Assembly in Russia was no longer representative of the Russian masses, who were gravitating towards a higher form of government – the soviets based on the power of the working class. No bourgeois parliament is capable of expressing the rapidly changing views of the mass of working people in the course of a revolutionary upheaval. The Constituent Assembly therefore, which was lagging behind the revolutionary events, had become a focal point of counter-revolutionary forces working to defend the essence of the reactionary tsarist regime.
The Constituent Assembly had come into being when its existence had been overtaken by the real living revolutionary events, and this justified its dissolution by the Bolshevik government. By shutting down the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks were not disbanding democracy. Rather, they were defending genuine workers’ democracy as represented by the soviets!
The ‘Luxemburgists’ attempt to portray Rosa Luxemburg as a defender of bourgeois parliamentarism as opposed to soviet power. Yet again, this is absolutely false. Only a few months after she finished writing The Russian Revolution (which, again, let us not forget, she never published in her lifetime), she wrote an article entitled ‘The National Assembly’ in November 1918 (which she did publish in Die Rote Fahne). Revolution had just broken out in Germany, and the liberals and reformists were calling for a ‘National Assembly’ (the German equivalent of the Constituent Assembly). At the same time, workers’ councils were springing up across Germany. This is what Luxemburg had to say about the National Assembly:
“The National Assembly is an outmoded legacy of bourgeois revolutions, an empty shell, a requisite from the time of petit-bourgeois illusions of a ‘united people’ and of the ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ of the bourgeois State.
“To resort to the National Assembly today is consciously or unconsciously to turn the revolution back to the historical stage of bourgeois revolutions; anyone advocating it is a secret agent of the bourgeoisie or an unconscious spokesman of petit-bourgeois ideology.”
These words of Rosa are totally ignored by our latter-day ‘Luxemburgists’. And the reason is evident: she is clearly calling for the abolition of the bourgeois-democratic ‘National Assembly’. Does this mean that Rosa Luxemburg was out to ‘destroy democracy’? Quite the contrary! Luxemburg, in exactly the same manner as Lenin and Trotsky, was defending the real institutions of workers’ democracy – the workers’ councils, i.e. soviets – from the distraction and confusion that the National Assembly would have created for the revolution.
Far from being the ‘advocate of spontaneity’ and an adversary of Bolshevism then, as she is presented to us by all those who deny the need to build a genuine revolutionary party, we see that Luxemburg stood on the side of the Russian Revolution, on the side of the Bolsheviks and did everything in her power to replicate the socialist revolution in Germany as a step towards the world socialist revolution. This is the true Rosa Luxemburg, whose legacy we claim. In the words of Leon Trotsky, we say to her false friends: “Hands off Rosa Luxemburg!”