Walter Held

The German Left and Bolshevism

(February 1939)

From New International, February 1939.
Reprinted in What Next?, No.6, 1997. [1]
Reproduced here by kind permission of the editor Bob Pitt, 24 Georgiana St, London NW1 0EA, email
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

INTELLECTUAL life in the Soviet Union throughout the rule of the epigones has consisted exclusively of the struggle against ‘Trotskyism’, to the point where it finally perished on this diet and all that is wafted to us today from Stalin’s realm is the icy air of the grave. The struggle against Trotsky, which was conducted under the sign of canonising Lenin and Bolshevism as Stalin understood them, also collided with the disturbing shade of Rosa Luxemburg. And upon the ukase of the ruffian and illiterate to whom not very deferential history, by one of its odd dialectical capers, confided the heritage of one of the most gifted scientific minds of all times, a pack of yelping curs flung themselves upon the corpse of the great revolutionist that was thrown before them. At that time it was the self-evident duty of every Marxian publicist who takes his task seriously, to come forward in defence of the memory of the great proletarian leader and to underscore as they deserved to be her progressive sides, her immortal merits. In contrast to Stalin’s kept young rogues, Rosa Luxemburg had to an outstanding degree those qualities which distinguish a true revolutionary leader: scientific seriousness in the treatment of every question, unselfish absorption in the cause, self-discipline and exemplary courage.

If, however, the question is once more put today of the content of the differences between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg – and it must be put again, in so far as this question relates to the solution of present tasks – we cannot content ourselves with a simple obeisance to the memory of Rosa Luxemburg. Besides, it would mean today to profane instead of honour Rosa’s memory if we were to allow the discussion on this theme to be influenced in the slightest by the Stalinist publications. Shafts from this side cannot touch Rosa Luxemburg. As an ideological current Stalinism is dead. It does not stand before history as accuser, but as accused.

On the other hand, there are today numerous currents which counterpose to the Bolshevik conception, so to speak, a Luxemburgian conception. These gentleman see in Stalin’s total police dictatorship and the Moscow Trials the direct result of Lenin’s ‘centralism’ and deduce that Rosa Luxemburg has remained correct in her polemic against Lenin’s alleged overestimation of centralised leadership. This at first blush fascinating argument overlooks, nevertheless, the fact that if Lenin is to be made responsible for Stalin, it is no less justified to load Rosa Luxemburg with the responsibility for the rule ... of Hitler. And actually there is in both assertions a kernel, only a kernel, of truth, but it is just this kernel that must be discovered.

Comrade Max Shachtman, in an exceptionally interesting article on this theme (Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, New International, May 1938), endeavoured to explain the differences between Lenin and Luxernburg by the historic diversity of Russian and German conditions. Now such an investigation of the objective background of the divergences is naturally entirely necessary for an understanding of them. But the investigation cannot stop there; otherwise we run the risk of falling into Austro-Marxism, that is, a Marxism which confines itself to demonstrating, with the aid of the Marxian method (a caricature of the Marxian method), that everything happened as it had to happen, and which thus eliminates from history the responsibility of the subjective factor. In reality, however, we all know that the revolutionary labour movement up to now foundered not on the objective situation as such but on its subjective subjugation. Then if we are to overcome the crisis of the labour movement, we must pitilessly lay bare the ultimate causes of this subjective failure and make the balance sheet of this dearly paid-for historical experience part of the inalienable theoretical capital of the Fourth International.


International significance of Lenin

In defence of Luxemburg’s ‘anti-Bolshevism’ comrade Shachtman correctly points out that even Lenin erred in his estimation of the factions of the German social democracy. Lenin’s great mistake consisted in this, that he applied his organisational, literary, strategical and tactical plan only to Russia, and pursued it to its final consequences only within the Russian movement, that, indeed, he regarded Bolshevism as the representation of the tendency of Bebel and Kautsky on Russian soil. So great was Lenin’s confidence in Kautsky that he paid no attention to the difference that arose in 1910 between Kautsky and the German left, and thus missed a highly favourable opportunity to create a firm support for Bolshevism in Germany, to extend the Bolshevik plan internationally. And in the last analysis, this mistake, this failure, this exclusively national application of the essentially international Bolshevik plan, is the deepest reason for the isolation of the Russian Revolution and, therefore, for the Stalinist Thermidor and impending fall of the Soviet Union. Or in other words: the gifted Leninist works What Is To Be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back of the first years of this century are in no wise of specifically Russian – as comrade Shachtman seems to assume -but of international significance. The ideas developed in these books on the relationship of spontaneity to conscious plan, on the role, organisational structure and tasks of the revolutionary party and their relationship to the proletariat and the other classes of society, the relationship of Marxian science and the labour movement – all these ideas have nothing specifically Russian in them,

In his work which appeared three years after the victory of the October Revolution, ‘Left Wing’ Communism – an Infantile Disorder, Lenin then tried to make the Bolshevik conception of 1903 accessible and understandable to the West European workers. The question why this attempt failed should be treated anew in connection with the hapless March adventure of the German Communist Party, and we reserve this for a later article. Here it is a question only of the following: whoever studies attentively ‘Left Wing’ Communism and compares it with the early writings of Lenin, will find again the same ideas and the same conception, even if in highly popularised form. That, however, would refute the view that Lenin did not consider his ideas of 1903 as ‘export commodities’. In 1903, Lenin did not think of any exporting only because he imagined lie was importing into ‘backward’ Russia the ideas of Bebel and Kautsky which had long ago become avowed truisms in ‘progressive’ Germany, in order to have them prevail over the revisionist, opportunistic and centrist currents of Martinov and Martov; whereas in reality it should have been a question of counter-posing the Bolshevik conception, the programme of What Is To Be Done?, to the whole theory and practice of the Second International, the Bernsteinian as well as the Kautskyian and Luxemburglan tendencies.

It would, however, be wrong to ignore the enormous qualitative difference in the historical mistakes of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. While Lenin succeeded in creating the first truly Marxian party, which led the Russian proletariat to the summits of power and thereby gave the world proletariat a tremendous impulsion and a vast mass of new points of view, experiences and lessons; while Lenin’s conception of 1903 found its highest confirmation in the planfully directed October uprising; Rosa’s conception suffered a terrible shipwreck in January 1919, and the German left presented us, besides a series of remarkable characters and martyrs to the cause, only the bitter lesson of a new defeat.

At bottom, the disastrous mistake of Rosa Luxemburg was concentrated in the question of the role of the party, in the definition of the social democracy as ‘the self-movement of the working class’, which she counter-posed to the brilliant Leninist definition of ‘the revolutionary social democrats as Jacobins bound up with the working class’. ‘The social democracy as the self-movement of the working class’ can never be anything but trade unionism transferred to the political sphere. Such a social democracy will never shake bourgeois society to its foundations. It will either run its head vainly against the solid walls of the bourgeois state or voluntarily submit to the latter as it stands. The proletarian class as a whole is, under the conditions of capitalism, not in a position to raise itself to such a level of consciousness as to be able to confront the bourgeoisie in a superior manner in all fields, to destroy bourgeois authority and to replace it with proletarian authority. Capitalism would not be suppression, exploitation and slavery if that were not the case. That is just why the problem is to create out of the specialists closely bound up with the working class a firmly disciplined organisation which, with the aid of Marxian armour, destroys bourgeois authority first in theory and then in practical reality, and leads the ’self-movement’ of the working class beyond the limits set for it.


wo Mistakes

Now Rosa Luxemburg had the advantage over Lenin of observing the German party at closer range. That is why she recognised its conservative character as early as 1904. She sees that the party is stuck in the mud of tradition, refuses to raise up new problems, limps behind the masses. And what conclusions does she draw from this? ‘The conscious initiative of the party leadership in the shaping of tactics plays only a slight role.’ ‘The fighting tactic of the social democracy is the result of a continuous series of great creative acts of the experimental, often elementary class struggle.’ ‘The unconscious precedes the conscious, the logic of the objective historical process precedes the subjective logic of its bearers.’ ‘The only subject upon whom the role of guide now devolves is the mass of the working class.’ In short, in her despair over the conservative inertia of the social democratic apparatus in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg created what Lenin characterised with full justice as the ‘not-to-be-taken-seriously nonsense of organisation and tactics as a process’, although, to be sure, he overlooked the fact, as we have already emphasised, that Rosa was completely in the right in her characterisation of the German party. But even here Rosa committed the grosser mistake. She separated form from content, she combated centralism as such, instead of counterposing the centralism of the revolutionary Marxists to that of the opportunists. In this way, Rosa, in spite of the fact that she agreed with Bolshevism in most political questions at the international congresses, was driven to the same position to which Menshevism fled in the face of Lenin’s intransigence. And history prepared the same fate for both of them, deciding each time in its own manner for centralism; while the Bolsheviks drive the Mensheviks out of the soviets, Noske succeeds in flinging Spartacus out of the chamber of the German revolution and shutting the door behind it.

The lack of final consistency accompanied Rosa throughout her political life, whereas Lenin, precisely because of the relentlessness with which he carried out a once recognised necessity, was in a position to accomplish his historic mission.

In her work written in 1899, Social Reform or Social Revolution, which will forever remain a pearl in Marxian polemical literature, Rosa Luxemburg rightfully demanded the expulsion of the Bemsteinians from the party. In the second edition of this work, which appeared in 1908, she omitted all the corresponding passages. Bemsteinism had eaten its way into the flesh of the German party like a fungus; the flesh was decomposing. But what new consequence did Rosa draw? None at all. She threatened the petrified leadership: the masses will teach you new mores! But if the masses will correct the mistakes of the party out of their own initiative, why then the demand for Bernstein’s expulsion in 1899? In 1910, Rosa saw through the pedantic officialdom of Kautsky and attacked him sharply in a series of articles. Yet again she does not draw the final consequence of her judgement. Although she stops her Sunday visits to Kautsky and thus gives new evidence of her spotless and exemplary character, she is nevertheless lacking politically in the same measure of resoluteness. If the party was ravaged by Bernsteinism and even the ‘Marxian centre’ of the Neue Zeit had come to a standstill in the routine of the ‘tactic that stood the test for forty years’, then it was absolutely necessary to unfurl the Marxian banner anew and in the eyes of all, with the formal question whether to constitute a new party immediately or to remain for a while inside the social democracy as a firmly-disciplined faction, playing a minor role. In any case, however, it was necessary to come out against the reformism and centrism of the social democracy in every single question and permanently, to drive it out of reality instead of letting oneself be driven out by it. The German left never raised the question clearly, much less did it have a firm plan for resolving it.


Luxemburg’s Allusions

It is known that Lenin first regarded as a Hohenzollern forgery the number of the Vorwärts which bought the report of the vote of the German social democracy in the Reichstag. This is not to be wondered at and is in accord with his previous attitude, i.e., with his illusions relative to Kautsky and the German centre. But Rosa, who had seen through the opportunistic character of the German party ten years earlier, who experienced the worst disillusionment above all at the Jena congress of 1913 – what was her attitude? She gave way to convulsive sobbing in the Vorwärts editorial board, thought she was going mad, yes, even the thought of suicide came to her mind. Again a reaction which wrings from us the greatest human sympathy and respect for this singular woman, but which nevertheless also clearly discloses the main political weakness of the German lefts. She had seen through the Bernsteinians and the Scheidemanns, the Legiens and even the Kautskys and Hilferdings, and in spite of it she was steeped in illusions about the social democracy, in spite of it she believed that this Bemstein-Kautsky social democracy would pass a great historical test. In reality, if the German left had drawn the final consequence from its criticism of the official social-democracy – and whoever does not draw the final consequence in politics, lands unfailingly under the wheels – it would have been prepared for the Fourth of August, foretold it and warned against it. It is clear that in this case the catastrophe of the Fourth of August would not have taken on anything like its scope, the reorganisation of the vanguard would have proceeded much more easily and the revolutionary maturing accelerated much differently, and the German revolution in general would have taken a different course. Thus even Liebknecht allowed himself to be taken by surprise by the decision of the Reichstag fraction and it took months for the tiny handful to assemble again: Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, Clara Zetkin, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogisches, Paul Levi. The profounder reason for the illusions of the German left with regard to the whole social democracy was founded, in turn, in its main error, in the disastrous ignoring of the reciprocal relation between party and masses. Rosa Luxemburg and her friends consoled themselves with this, that in the great historical crisis the masses would correct the party and sweep it along, Now they had to witness the fact that there was nothing for the masses to do in this situation except to follow – even perhaps while gritting their teeth – the instructions of the party.

Yet, while Lenin immediately draws the last consequence from the Fourth of August with his customary keenness – ‘The Second International Is dead, long live the Third!’ – and now seeks to develop, also in the International, all the elements to a Bolshevik conception of things (see, for example, his criticism of the Junius brochure), the German left continues to remain steeped in its fundamental mistake. The same erroneous conceptions on the role of the party which Rosa Luxemburg defended in 1904, recur in an article she published on 31 March 1917 in the Duisburg organ of the USPD, Der Kampf. ‘The Spartacus League tendency’, it says, ‘does not counter-pose to the Independent social democracy another programme and a fundamentally quite different tactic, which supply at every moment and as a permanent structure the basis of a separate party existence [that’s just what the problem was! W.H.], rather it is only [!] another historical tendency of the whole movement of the proletariat, from which follows, to be sure, a different attitude in almost every question of tactics and organisation. The opinion, however, that from this follows the necessity or even only the objective possibility of now jamming the workers into different, carefully separated party cages corresponding to the two tendencies of the opposition, is based upon a conventicle-conception of the party.’

From the ‘not-to-be-taken-seriously’ nonsense of the organisation as a process runs a straight line to this no less curious philosophy of an organisation which, although it does not counterpose to the opportunistic tendency any independent programme and any fundamentally quite different tactic, nevertheless does embody ‘another historical tendency’. With such light ideological baggage did Spartacus march in the German revolution. The catastrophic effect was not to be averted.


The German Catastrophe

Came November 9, the ’spontaneous people’s revolution’, which the SPI) resisted to the very last minute, but for which neither the Independent SPD nor Spartacus had taken the initiative. The November revolution in Germany could overturn the solid structure of capitalism just as little as could the February revolution in Russia; in both cases they were only able to eliminate the monarchistic embellishment. The real work first began after November. It is of course to the honour of Spartacus that it recognised this and refused to be party to the general round of fraternisation which always followed every popular uprising organised ‘from below’ and victorious at the first shot and into which such ‘Bolsheviks’ as Stalin also fell in February 1917. Still, Spartacus committed the reverse mistake and adopted an ultimatist attitude towards the masses. The same Rosa Luxemburg who in her criticism of the Russian revolution had reproached the Bolsheviks for the lack of democracy and the suppression of the soviet minority, refused to be elected onto the Executive Council of the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils together with the social democrats of the Ebert tendency. The masses did not accept this ultimatum of the Spartacus League, and the result was an Executive Council without Spartacus. The further result was that Spartacus did not get the slightest influence upon the elections to the first German Council Congress and remained without representation in it. Liebknecht had to confine himself to impotent attempts to conquer the congress ‘from without’. These events ought now to have sufficed to show Spartacus what its task was: namely, Lenin’s programme of April 1917. Patiently explain, restrain the small revolutionary minority from ill-considered steps, penetrate into the mass organisations and all the classes of the population, expose and polemically annihilate the reformists and centrists, in order, finally, at the historically ripe moment, to proceed to the insurrection.

The founding conference of the Communist Party, which finally takes place at the end of December 1918, decides however to drive the line of abstentionism to the point of absurdity, to boycott the elections to the National Assembly; there is even a discussion on withdrawing from the mass trade unions, And Rosa, who had just accused the Bolsheviks because they renounced the institution of the National Assembly after the victory, that is, possessing power they exercised the dictatorship – Rosa suffered the misfortune of becoming the prisoner of a party which renounces the National Assembly before the victory, and which, as a small minority, undertakes the hopeless task of imposing its ultimatum on the vast majority. Although she herself spoke for participation in the elections and lamented the ‘immaturity’ of the congress, she did not recognise that her own disorganising organisational principles had suffered shipwreck here, that in her own way she had created a Utopian-radical instead of a Marxian party. No surgeon can operate with a dull knife, no Marxist can act with an undisciplined, Utopian party. And still Rosa does not dare to carry out the break with this Utopian element, she herself becomes the victim of the organisational fetishism with which she wrongly reproached Lenin, and she goes to the operating table of history with a dull instrument. Possibly it is only because she has still not yet grasped the fact that the success or failure of the revolution depends upon her own self, upon her own policy. And thus we also find once more in the Spartacus programme, adopted, characteristically, unanimously by the same congress which decided on abstention from the elections, the old mistakes. Just read the following passage: ‘In tenacious struggle with capital, breast to breast in every factory, by direct pressure of the masses, by strikes, by creating their permanent organs of representation, the workers can achieve control over production and finally the actual direction.’ ‘The Spartacus League is not a party which seeks to reach dominion over the working masses or through the working masses. The Spartacus League is only [!] the most conscious part of the proletariat, which, at every step of the whole broad mass of the working class, points out its historical tasks.’ It follows clearly that Rosa Luxemburg had an entirely inadequate picture of the course of the proletarian revolution, She conceived of the proletarian revolution as a sort of new November revolution, as a chain of strikes and uprisings which finally merge into a general strike or even a popular uprising. With her the role of the party was confined to summoning the masses to action, until fully the power will fall into the lap of the party as a ripe fruit, something like the social democracy reaped the fruits of the first revolution. She did not recognise that it is the task of the party to assemble the masses and to discipline them like troops for a battle, and that the leadership of the party, like a gifted field commander or general staff, must have the strategic plan of battle in its head and convert it into a reality.

It was the ignoring of this task of the party that led Spartacus to the worst mistake that a revolutionary party can ever commit, namely, to play with the insurrection. For the Spartacus insurrection of January 1919 was nothing but a completely planless, quite inconceivably naive playing with the fire of insurrection. The narrow-minded counter-revolutionists, Hohenzollern sergeant-majors, stupid fanatics of Order and bloodhounds of the bourgeoisie, Noske and Ebert, set a trap for Spartacus and Spartacus fell into the trap with covered eyes. And thus did also Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Jogisches suffer the typical fate of all German revolutionists, which the exceptionally talented poet Oska Panizza, who later went mad, epitomised in the unsentimental phrase: ‘Until now the Germans have unfortunately known only the passive form of beheading ... being beheaded.’ While, on the contrary, the Russians under the leadership of the Bolsheviks proceeded to the realisation of the prediction made as far back as 1896 by the same Panizza: ‘Russia, that lurking brain, will some day burst out frightfully and the people of the Bakunins and Dostoievskys will gain its freedom by a fallen head.’ Between beheading and being beheaded, however, between active and passive, between Lenin and Luxemburg, there is no compromise.


Walter HELD

[Max Shachtman will comment on this article in an early issue of the review. ED.]



Note by What Next?

1. This article first appeared in the February 1939 issue of the New International. It is a reply to Max Shachtman’s article, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, which was reprinted in What Next? No.4. In contrast to the ‘revisionist’ approach to the history of the early Communist International which Held would adopt in his later article Why the German Revolution Failed (reprinted in the first issue of this journal), he presents here a fiercely orthodox defence of Leninism against Luxemburgism. In doing so, he raises a number of issues – the relationship between spontaneity and Marxism, and the appropriate form of revolutionary political organisation, for example – which will hopefully be the subject of further discussion.


Last updated on 6.8.2004