Tony Cliff

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the Bolsheviks in power

During September and October 1918, while in Breslau prison, Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet on the Russian Revolution. As a basis, she used not only the German but also the Russian press of the time that was smuggled by her friends into her prison cell. She never finished or polished the work, for the beginning of the German Revolution opened the doors of her prison.

The first edition of this pamphlet was published in 1922, after Rosa Luxemburg’s death, by her comrade-in-arms Paul Levi. This edition, however, was not complete, and in 1928 a new edition was published on the basis of a newly-found manuscript.

Rosa Luxemburg was a most enthusiastic supporter of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik Party, and she made this clear in her pamphlet, writing:

Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and 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. [63]

Again she wrote:

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 problems of the realisation of Socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between Capital and Labour in the entire world ... And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism”. [64]

Although praising the October Revolution in the highest terms, Rosa Luxemburg believed that an uncritical acceptance of everything the Bolsheviks did would not be of service to the labour movement. The Marxist method of analysis, according to her, was to accept nothing that had not been submitted first to revolutionary criticism.

It was clear to her that the conditions of isolation of the Russian Revolution caused by the betrayal of Western Social Democracy must lead to distortions in its development. Without international revolutionary support, “even the greatest energy and the greatest sacrifices of the proletariat in a single country must inevitably become tangled in a maze of contradictions and blunders”. [65]

After pointing out some of these contradictions and blunders, she clearly uncovers their causes, saying:

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 from 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. [66]

While objective factors may lead revolutions to blunder, subjective factors in the leadership may make these blunders dangerous. They contain a special hazard when they are turned into virtues: “The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics”. [67]

But it was precisely this dangerous idea that was swallowed lock, stock and barrel by the Stalinist parties (and, alas, also by some who call themselves anti-Stalinist).

Rosa Luxemburg criticised the Bolsheviks in power for what she considered their wrong policies with regard to the following:

  1. the land question;
  2. the nationalities question;
  3. the Constituent Assembly;
  4. the democratic rights of workers.

We shall deal with each problem separately.

A socialist land policy, argued Rosa Luxemburg, must aim to encourage the socialisation of agricultural production:

... only the nationalisation of the large landed estates, as the technically most advanced and most concentrated means and methods of agrarian production, can serve as the point of departure for the socialist mode of production on the land. Of course, it is not necessary to take away from the small peasant his parcel of land, and we can with confidence leave him to be won over voluntarily by the superior advantages of social production and to be persuaded of the advantages first of union in co-operatives and then finally of inclusion in the general socialised economy as a whole. Still, every socialist economic reform on the land must obviously begin with large and medium land ownership. Here the property right must first of all be turned over to the nation, or to the State, which, with a socialist government, amounts to the same thing; for it is this alone which affords the possibility of organising agricultural production in accord with the requirements of interrelated, large-scale social production. [68]

However, Bolshevik policy was quite contrary to this: “... the slogan launched by the Bolsheviks, immediate seizure and distribution of the land by the peasants ... not only is ... not a socialist measure; it even cuts off the way to such measures; it piles up insurmountable obstacles to the socialist transformation of agrarian relations”. [69]

And Rosa Luxemburg, rightly and, as life proved, prophetically, pointed out that the distribution of the landed estates among the peasants would strengthen the power of private property in the countryside, and thus would heap added difficulties in the path of the socialisation of agriculture in the future:

Formerly there was only a small caste of noble and capitalist landed proprietors and a small minority of rich village bourgeoisie to oppose a socialist reform on the land. And their expropriation by a revolutionary mass movement of the people is mere child’s play. But now, after the “seizure”, as an opponent of any attempt at socialisation of agrarian production, there is an enormous, newly-developed and powerful mass of owning peasants who will defend their newly-won property with tooth and nail against every socialist attack. [70]

And how important this fact – the isolation of a small working class in a sea of antagonistic, backward, petty capitalist peasants – proved to be in the rise of Stalin!

However, Lenin and Trotsky had no alternative. It is true that the Bolshevik Party programme provided for nationalisation of all landed estates. And for many years Lenin had argued heatedly against the Social Revolutionaries who were in favour of distributing the landlords’ land among the peasants. However, in 1917, when the land problem demanded an immediate solution, he straight away adopted the slogans of the much-condemned Social Revolutionaries, or rather of the spontaneous peasant movement. If the Bolsheviks had not done this, they, and the urban working class they led, would have been isolated from the countryside, and the revolution would have been stillborn, or at most short-lived (as was the Hungarian Revolution of 1919).

By no stretch of strategy or tactics could the Bolsheviks overcome a basic contradiction in the Russian Revolution, the fact that it was carried out by two different contradictory classes, the working class and the peasantry, the former collectivist, the latter individualist. As early as in 1906 Trotsky had postulated the prospect that the future revolution, in which the working class would lead the peasants, would end with the latter so bitterly opposing the former that only the spreading of the revolution could save the workers’ power from being overthrown:

The Russian proletariat ... will meet with organised hostility on the part of world reaction and with readiness on the part of the world proletariat to lend the revolution organised assistance. Left to itself, the working class of Russia will inevitably be crushed by the counter-revolution at the moment when the peasantry turns its back upon the proletariat. Nothing will be left to the workers but to link the fate of their own political rule, and consequently the fate of the whole Russian Revolution, with that of the socialist revolution in Europe. [71]

Rosa Luxemburg’s estimate of the Bolshevik land policy shows much true insight into the situation in the Russian Revolution, and points out the frequent dangers inherent in the Bolshevik policies. But the situation did not allow the Bolsheviks any other revolutionary land policy besides the one they implemented: acceding to the democratic, spontaneous wish of the peasants to distribute the land expropriated from the landlords.

Rosa Luxemburg was no less critical of the Bolshevik policy on the question of nationalities, warning of the gravest dangers to the revolution:

The Bolsheviks are in part responsible for the fact that the military defeat was transformed into the collapse and breakdown of Russia. Moreover, the Bolsheviks themselves have, to a great extent, sharpened the objective difficulties of this situation by a slogan which they placed in the foreground of their policies: the so-called right of self-determination of peoples, or – something which was really implicit in this slogan – the disintegration of Russia. [72]

Instead of the slogan of self-determination she proposed the policy of “working for the most compact union of the revolutionary forces throughout the area of the Empire ... of defending tooth and nail the integrity of the Russian Empire as an area of revolution and opposing to all forms of separatism the solidarity and inseparability of the proletarians in all lands within the sphere of the Russian Revolution as the highest command of politics”. [73]

How wrong Rosa Luxemburg was on this question!

If the Bolsheviks had followed her advice on this issue the ruling classes of the formerly oppressed nations would have managed more and more to rally the popular masses around them and so enhance the isolation of the Soviet power. Only by the formerly oppressing nation putting forward the slogan of self-determination could they gain the revolutionary unity of all peoples. It was in this way that the Bolsheviks did manage to rally at least part of the territory lost in the world war and the beginning of the civil war – Ukraine, for instance. It was because of a deviation from this policy of self-determination for all peoples that the Red Army was first repulsed at the gate of Warsaw, and then brought upon themselves the hatred of the Georgians by marching into and occupying Georgia in a most bureaucratic, anti-democratic fashion. [74]

In the case of the national question, as well as the land question, Rosa Luxemburg erred because she departed from the principle of popular decision, a principle so central to her thoughts and actions in general.

One of the criticisms Rosa Luxemburg levelled at the Bolsheviks concerned their dispersal of the Constituent Assembly. She wrote:

It is a fact that Lenin and his comrades were stormily demanding the calling of a Constituent Assembly up to the time of their October victory, and that the policy of dragging out this matter on the part of the Kerensky government constituted an article in the indictment of that government by the Bolsheviks and was the basis of some of their most violent attacks upon it.

Indeed, Trotsky says in his interesting pamphlet, From October to Brest-Litovsk, that the October Revolution represented “the salvation of the Constituent Assembly” as well as the revolution as a whole. “And when we said”, he continues, “that the entrance to the Constituent Assembly could not be reached through the Preliminary Parliament of Zeretelli, but only through the seizure of power by the Soviets, we were entirely right”.

After thus calling for the Constituent Assembly, the same leaders dispersed it on 6 January 1918.

What Rosa Luxemburg proposed in her pamphlet was the idea of Soviets plus Constituent Assembly. But life itself showed quite clearly that this would have led to a dual power, which would have threatened the organ of workers’ power, the Soviets. The Bolshevik leaders justified the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly in the first place on the grounds that the elections had been held under an obsolete law, which gave undue weight to the rich minority of the peasants who, at the one and only session of the Assembly, refused to ratify the decrees on land, peace and the transfer of power to the Soviets. Rosa Luxemburg countered this by arguing that the Bolsheviks could simply have held new elections which did not suffer from past distortions.

But the real reason for the dispersal lay deeper than this.

It was first of all a result of the fact that, while the Soviets were largely working-class organisations, the Constituent Assembly was based mainly on the votes of the peasants. It was therefore no accident that the Bolsheviks, who had the overwhelming majority in the Second Congress of the Soviets (8 November 1917) which were elected by some 20 million people, did not command the support of more than a quarter of the Constituent Assembly elected by all the people of Russia. The peasant, devoted to private property, could not identify himself with Bolshevism, even if he was happy to have Bolshevik support for land distribution and the fight for peace. The Soviets were therefore a much more reliable support for workers’ rule than the Constituent Assembly ever could be.

But there is an even more basic reason – one that has nothing to do with the peasant predominance in the Russian population – for not having a Constituent Assembly (or Parliament) side by side with Soviets. Soviets are the specific form of rule of the working class, in the same way as parliament was the specific form of domination of the bourgeoisie.

Actually, in the German Revolution Rosa Luxemburg radically altered her standpoint and vigorously opposed the slogan of the USPD: “Workers’ Councils and a National Assembly”. Thus on 20 November 1918 she wrote:

Whoever pleads for a National Assembly is consciously or unconsciously depressing the revolution to the historical level of a bourgeois revolution; he is a camouflaged agent of the bourgeoisie or an unconscious representative of the petty bourgeoisie ...

The alternatives before us today are not democracy and dictatorship. They are bourgeois democracy and socialist democracy. The dictatorship of the proletariat is democracy in a socialist sense. [75]

Rosa’s chief criticism of the Bolsheviks was that they were responsible for restricting and undermining workers’ democracy. And on this issue the whole tragic history of Russia proves that she was, prophetically, absolutely correct.

The heart of Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian Revolution, as of all she wrote and said, was a belief in the workers, the conviction that they, and they alone, are capable of overcoming the crisis facing humanity. She fervently believed that workers’ democracy is inseparable from proletarian revolution and socialism. She wrote:

... socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class. [76]

Although she unhesitatingly supported the working-class dictatorship directed against the enemies of socialism, she argued that only complete and consistent democracy could ensure the rule of the working class, and could give scope to its tremendous potentialities. She claimed that the Bolsheviks deviated from this conception:

The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of the dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something in which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – not the case. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realisation of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our programme is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that. Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party programme or text book. That is not a shortcoming but rather the very thing that makes scientific socialism superior to the Utopian varieties. The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, an historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realisation, as a result of the developments of living history, which – just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part – has the fine habit of always producing along with any real social need the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution. However, if such is the case, then it is clear that socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced by ukase [edict]. [77]

And Rosa Luxemburg predicted that the collective of the Russian workers would not take an active part in economic and social life:

... socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals ... with the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the Soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of Press and Assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality, only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins. [78]

Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the Russian Revolution, as with all her writing, could give no solace to reformist critics of revolutionary socialism, but could serve as an aid to those who desire to keep the science of working-class action living and untrammelled. Her criticism of the Bolshevik party is in the best traditions of Marxism, of the basic maxim of Karl Marx: “merciless criticism of all things existing”.




63. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution (New York, 1940), p.16.

64. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, p.56.

65. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, p.5.

66. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, pp.54-55.

67. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, p.55.

68. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, p.18.

69. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, P19.

70. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, pp.20-2l.

71. L. Trotsky, Itogy i Perspektivy (Moscow, 1919), p.80.

72. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, p.23.

73. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, p.29.

74. Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the nationalities policy of the Bolsheviks in power was a continuation of her differences with them on this issue over nearly two decades (see the section Rosa Luxemburg on the national question).

75. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, vol.II, p.606.

76. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, p.54.

77. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, pp.45-46.

78. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, pp.47-48.


Last updated on 20.4.2003