Jim Higgins

Luxemburg and Lenin

(Winter 1966/67)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.27, Winter 1966/67.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Of late there has been a tendency among the writers of the weekend review fringe, to love up to safely dead revolutionaries – particularly those whose lives can be described as failures. One noted this first in the reviews of Deutscher’s trilogy on Trotsky. Deutscher’s work received deserved acclaim as a major work of biography. Trotsky was venerated as a great literary stylist, his superhuman struggles against personal and political adversity applauded. He was contrasted with Stalin, as a civilised and humane man. But his politics – received that amused contempt normally reserved for the enthusiasms of the very young. Cultured and civilised Trotsky might be, but he was clearly no match for the uncultured and uncivilised Stalin. The whole of Trotsky’s brilliant and penetrating analysis went for nothing. He was abstracted from the real situation in which his ideological struggles took place and, as a utopian dreamer, contrasted with the brutal but necessary Realpolitik of Stalinism.

Again, in the case of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, one detected the same nostalgia for a dead revolutionary hero in reviews which, apart from a notably illiterate attack in the Sunday Times, universally acclaimed the work.

Now it is the turn of Rosa Luxemburg. Her life contains all the elements to titillate palates jaded by long draughts of corrosive fellow-travelling. She was personally courageous; her love life was intense but unsatisfactory; she was physically handicapped; she spent time in prison – a lot of time – and perhaps best of all she died in a particularly brutal way at the hands of Freikorps thugs. Add to this her slightly hysterical (for my taste) attachment to the beauties of nature and the result is the perfect ikon with which to salve the unquiet liberal conscience.

At one point in his book [1], Mr Nettl comments on the strange position occupied by Rosa Luxemburg in the socialist pantheon. There is certainly a weird coalition of worshippers at her shrine. The Social Democrats claim her as their own on the basis of her polemics against the Bolsheviks, while the Stalinists revered her for her violent and cogently argued repudiation of the social democratic position. Nettl notes this phenomenon but suggests it is due to the timing of her death which occurred before she could have time to take sides in the controversies which rocked the Communist movement in the twenties and thirties. Later in the book, Nettl suggests that, had she lived, she would have had to fill her declining years by writing memoirs as a pensioner of some learned American foundation (à la Ruth Fischer) or to have lived out her days in what he (Nettl) imagines to have been the sterility of dispossessed revolutionary groups (à la Trotsky). This seems to assume a completely static view of history and the relationship between individuals and the revolutionary movement. It is true that except in very few instances one can point to an individual as the central factor in a revolutionary situation, and in the twentieth century probably only Lenin and Luxemburg have actually personified historical necessity. The conjunction of Lenin, the Bolshevik party and the Russian workers were the essential ingredients for the successful October revolution. On a number of occasions Trotsky wrote of the key role Lenin played in 1917. In the sense that nobody else among the Bolsheviks (certainly not Trotsky) had the prestige to alter the course of the party and set it firmly on the road to the seizure of power, then Trotsky is unquestionably right. The dialectical relationship between the three elements in the Russian revolution is demonstrated most clearly by Trotsky when he says:

... Lenin... did not fall from the skies. He personified the revolutionary traditions of the working class. For Lenin’s slogans to find their way to the masses there had to exist cadres even though numerically small at the beginning; there had to exist the confidence based on the entire experience of the past... The role and responsibility of the leadership in a revolutionary epoch is colossal. [2]

In the case of Luxemburg, the picture is less clear, if only because the importance of her role has been muddied by the apologists of German Communism and Social Democracy. Nevertheless it is to my mind virtually certain that the failure of 1919 would have had a totally different aftermath had she lived. It is impossible to imagine a German Communist party with Rosa Luxemburg at its head bowing to the dictates of a Zinoviev-directed Comintern or accepting the Stalin policy of “Socialism in One Country.” with the accession of the Independent Social Democrats to the KPD in October 1920, the building of a mass revolutionary party became a possibility; a possibility that Rosa would not have missed. The tragedy of 1919 would not have been repeated in the farce of 1924. The idiocy of the ’third period’ is unthinkable in terms of a Luxemburgist party. To consider the possibility of a successful German revolution is to rewrite subsequent world history. No Nazis; no Stalinism; no world war and the real chance for the international socialism so dear to Luxemburg’s heart. The Social Democratic leaders who connived at the assassination of Liebknecht and Luxemburg have more to answer for than complicity in murder.

It is inevitable that in any study of Luxemburg , her theoretical and political contribution will be contrasted with that of Lenin. Although perhaps less inevitable, it is unfortunately the case that most commentators come down squarely on the side of the super Marxist democrat, Luxemburg, against the wily Asiatic tyrant, Lenin, as if they represented separate incompatible poles. It cannot be denied that there were deep and passionately-argued differences between them. But were the differences of a fundamental character? Is it not true that the polemics concerned questions of revolutionary strategy and the potentialities for socialist activity, given the actual facts of capitalism at the time? In either case the argument was conducted from different vantage points based on dissimilar traditions and requirements. The debate was hard fought on a whole series of questions (imperialism, the nature of the party, the mass strike and later the form and content of the Russian revolution). At no time however was the argument conducted with the degree of intensity that characterised the debates with Bernstein and Kautsky. The debate with Lenin was conducted within the context of a shared revolutionary objective while the struggles against Revisionism and centrism resulted in a definite break. For example, in the polemic against What is to be done?, Luxemburg insists upon the free activity of the revolutionary class in the splendid formulation,

... Historically the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee. [3]

In this she cannot be faulted if one starts – as she does – from the accomplished fact of the mass German party. For Lenin the situation was quite different. The need in Russia was to build an organisation capable of making the connection between revolutionary theory and the Russian workers, under conditions of Tsarist autocracy. In any case the concept of trade union consciousness as the limit above which workers could not rise was not Lenin’s formulation but an import from German Social Democracy. As Dunayevskaya points out

... there was an element in Lenin’s theory of organisation ... which was specifically Leninist, the conception of what constitutes membership in a Russian Marxist group. Indeed the definition did not only rest on a “phrase,” that he is only a member who puts himself “under the discipline of the local organisation.” The disciplining by the local was crucial to Lenin’s conception that it held primacy over verbal adherence to Marxist theory, propagandising Marxist views, and holding a membership card. Undoubtedly you have something in your head that is at sharp variance with the prevailing Social Democratic conception when you are that stubborn about a “phrase.” [4]

With this in mind it becomes clear that Lenin’s conception not only involved traffic from the socialist intelligentsia to the workers but a two-way exchange which submitted the intellectuals to the discipline of work in concert with active proletarians. Further light is shed on this controversy when we recall the interesting fact that Luxemburg’s reply to What is to be Done? was originally published in Neue Zeit (the SPD theoretical journal) and only later translated into Russian for publication in Iskra. It would seem that Rosa was fighting here on two fronts. The bureaucratisation of the SPD was moving on apace. The victory over revisionist theory had not resulted in a victory over revisionist practice. In Luxemburg’s opinion the prescription for the German movement was not more direction from the centre but a releasing of revolutionary potential from the encumbrance of parliamentary manoeuvring and trade union economism. In many ways this argument between Lenin and Luxemburg is perhaps the most important for the socialist movement today. One of the tragedies of current revolutionary politics is the pathetic fervour with which many people cling to the particular organisational principles Lenin laid down in 1903. However appropriate they may have been in the Russia of the time there is no doubt that today they require drastic modification (as Lenin modified them in 1905 and again in 1917). In the British labour movement there is no shortage of leaderships and alternative leaderships all in search of a movement to lead. The problem is not to assume leadership of the working class (although I am prepared to offer a fine shade of odds against any of the current pretenders), but to put forward those ideas with analytical justification that will bring the existing movement into collision with the fabric of capitalist society. In this process the leadership and the revolutionary party will be formed. For the British labour movement in the mid-1960’s, Luxemburg is, on this question a better guide than the Lenin of What is to Be Done?

If one pursues the investigation of the Lenin/Luxemburg controversies into the argument over the mass strike and the vexed question of spontaneity again one finds that those differences were rooted in the differences in objective conditions facing the two protagonists in their separate fields of activity. The dialectic of combined and uneven development in Russia meant the subordination of tens of thousands of first generation peasants to the inhuman discipline of large scale capitalist manufacture. The frequent resort to mass protest is, in some ways, an expression of the backwardness of Russian workers in terms of direct political consciousness and their ability, under the conditions, of Tsarism to give any meaning to a constitutional political protest. The Bolsheviks then did not need to emphasise the necessity for, nor the inevitability of, the mass strike – it was there on the ground. The problem in Russia was to canalise this spontaneous movement into socialist objectives. The German Left had quite the reverse problem. Their task was to set in motion the working class in conflict with society through the agency of the mass strike and the mass party. The German need was to revoke their parliamentary proxy while the Russians needed a revolutionary leadership. But the last words on the alleged irreconcilability between the ideas of Lenin and Luxemburg should come from two people who were opposed with equal fervour to both revolutionaries. The Menshevik Theodore Dan, in his history of the Russian movement said that Polish Social Democracy

... shared in its essentials the organisational principles of Lenin against which Rosa Luxemburg had polemicized at the birth of Bolshevism; it also applied these principles in the practice of its own party ...

Kautsky her bitter enemy, wrote in 1922

It does not even occur to me today to deny that in the course of the war Rosa drew steadily closed to the communist world of thought, so that it is quite correct when Radek says that “with Rosa Luxemburg there died the greatest and most profound theoretical head of communism”.

A problem that has bedevilled every genuine socialist tendency has been its relationship to the mass reformist party. Since 1914 the problem has been simplified in that the immutably reformist (in essence, reactionary) nature of Social Democracy has been abundantly and all too frequently displayed. But this realisation of the nature of Social Democracy has not been accompanied by the elucidation of a satisfactory tactic for work within, upon and about the mass parties. The solutions put forward are all, in their way, unsatisfactory in application if not in theory. They range from outright rejection, with the formation of a “pure” revolutionary party (RCP etc.); through open-ended organisations which nestle their roots in the compost of the reformist parties (SLL at various times); to those tendencies which are frequently indistinguishable from the mulch allowing themselves no more indulgence than the production of little journals. In all these examples, the inclination is to defend the tactic to the point where it becomes a principle, leaving no room for effective manoeuvre. Without giving way to mystical delusions about embryonic revolutionary parties, it should be possible for a small but flexible organisation to change the emphasis of its tactics to come into mutually fruitful contacts with workers. A combination of all three tactics can in no way be precluded if a changing situation demands a quick and audacious response.

The reason for this last somewhat discursive paragraph is not just to make a fairly obvious point but also to consider the problem of the pre-1914 German Left and what chance for success it might have had if it had been more effectively organised into a disciplined faction. It is a commonplace that Lenin’s definitive break (in an organisational sense) with the Mensheviks enabled the Bolsheviks to forge an organisation capable of taking power. Again, the roots of Polish Communism were established when Luxemburg and Jogiches broke from the PPS to form the SDKP in 1893. The PPS, they decided, was hopelessly out of tune with socialist objectives, an estimation that Rosa repeated in 1911 (if not earlier in regard to the SPD. Far earlier than Lenin, she had weighed Kautsky and found him short in the balance. It is at least arguable that at this stage (1911/12) the formation of a disciplined Left Opposition was in order. As Nettl shows (p.459), Luxemburg made no such attempt. The argument in support of Luxemburg follows something along these lines. The relationship of forces as between the Left and the SPD machine was horribly weighted against the Left. It is further suggested, to move into sharp opposition would have cut the Marxists off from the organised SPD working class, in a party which made a fetish of unity.

Ever since then (1875) Social Democracy had looked on any policy that might lead to a split not merely as a political error but as ultimate infamy – with the same moralistic fervour associated, say, with murder. [5]

There is some weight to be accorded these arguments. But, is it necessarily true that a principled opposition with a clear programme will always cut itself off from the workers in an active mass party? Surely the reverse is frequently the case. A party with a verbally radical programme and an active membership obviously cannot be assaulted frontally through its entrenched machine but at the margins where its verbal radicalism is put to the test of rank-and-file scrutiny. The post-1917 experience of the French and German Communist parties with their massive gains from Social Democracy is a case in point and much less significant but closer to home is recent experience in the Young Socialists. An opposition can in this sense operate on the mass party from without and within. That difficulties exist, is really beside the point; it is precisely in the formulation of an organisational and programmatic opposition that the necessary interaction between the revolutionaries takes place. An organisation in pre-war Germany that proceeded on this basis would have been appealing to workers over the heads of the SPD leadership with a programme that was more in accord with the workers’ situation. To disseminate and popularise such a programme there would have been no immediate need for a large following, but insofar as the programme is fought for and accepted, the growth of the opposition is assured. Brandler estimated that in 1915 the Gruppe Internationale (later Spartacusbund) had 4,000 loosely organised adherents. If this organisation had been formed earlier it is reasonable to suppose that the 4,000 could have been much larger, the anti-war propaganda more effective and by 1918 there might have been a fully-fledged Communist Party on the ground in many ways more capable than the Bolsheviks in Russia. The question, like all such historical “ifs”, is an open one, but it illustrates that perhaps Rosa, like many Marxists before and too many since, displayed a tactical rigidity not entirely consonant with the revolutionary task she set herself.

It is necessary to conclude a review of this kind with some evaluation of the job performed by the biographer. Mr Nettl has carried out a useful and long overdue service. The research involved has been monumental. Everything available that Luxemburg wrote, or that has been written about her, has been sifted and evaluated. People who knew her and are still living have been interviewed – particularly useful in this respect was the information obtained from Luise Kautsky’s friend, Blumenburg – and as a result a number of interesting and new insights into her life and character are displayed. One complaint that I have is that Jogiches never emerges as anything more than a rather shadowy figure: in a book of 984 pages, one would have hoped for a rather more rounded presentation. As against this one can congratulate Nettl on his perceptive analysis of Kautsky. He shows clearly that this “Pope of Marxism” was in reality a sterile propagator of orthodoxy without reference to the changing world and the necessary practical consequences of a revolutionary ideology, in fact, a classical centrist.

But there are some matters on which Mr Nettl not only goes against the facts but also against much that is implicit in his sown pages. One judgement in particular stands out like a sore thumb:

The great difference between Lenin and Luxemburg was that the former could have taken himself off to the moon and produced exactly the same thought and action from there. Rosa Luxemburg on the other hand needed not only society and Social democracy as the humus for her thought but the specific society if Imperial Germany and particularly the German Social Democracy that had grown with it.

This really is quite grotesque, the reverse of the real situation. In fact a Lenin divorced from the Russian Labour Movement just would not have existed before 1917. While Rosa, had she had the misfortune to be landed on the moon, would have settled down to educate and organise the green cheese against its maggot exploiters. Another cause of some irritation is Nettl’s use, on occasion, of intrusive sociological terms and categories, as in his characterisation of the SDKP leadership as a “peer group.” Nettl suggests:

This Social Democracy of Poland and Lithuania was a group of intellectual peers long before it became a political party. It provided its members with all the attributes o a primary group, an association which all the emigrés lacked – a family, an ideology, a discipline, in short a constant and reliable source of strength ... – in some respects as conspiratorial as Lenin’s Bolsheviks, but outward and open looking in other. The discipline was largely voluntary and was confined to public action; for the rest it left large areas of freedom and choice to the participants, even room for profound intellectual disagreements ... Trotsky with all his friends, admirers and disciples, never had the benefit of a peer group; hence his difficulty in building a following before the revolution and the fragility of his support after 1923 (Nettl p.23).

If by all this he means that the Polish Marxists were an exceptionally talented lot, one can agree – even after 1917 there was a common saying in the Comintern, “The Russian party is the biggest and the Polish party is the best.” But to suggest that the SDKP leadership was qualitatively different from all other revolutionary groups because of this nice accident of togetherness in a “primary group” seems to me to be an error. In fact all revolutionary groups – including the Bolsheviks under Lenin and especially the Left Opposition after 1923 – have similar relationships. Circumstances may vary the degree of conspiracy, but intellectual disagreements always abound both “outward and inward.” One assumes that Nettl has no close acquaintance with the revolutionary movement except as an interested observer. But an academic observer (no matter how well disposed) can scrutinise the collected works from laundry list to magnum opus and still miss the essential flavour of a revolutionary organisation. It would have been better perhaps if someone more in sympathy with Rosa Luxemburg’s politics had written this book (Mr Nettl in his introduction refuses to let his own philosophical cat out of the bag; whatever it is, that cat is no Marxist) but they have not, and probably will not, until the coming Russian, German and Polish revolutions finally frees all the sources for the final evaluation of Rosa Luxemburg.

Of course the life and work of a revolutionary like Luxemburg will mean different things to different people. For the academic mind at its lowest level it will represent thesis fodder of a particularly rich variety. For the professional anti-Communist, careful selection can provide evidence for the impossibility of revolutionary success and if, by chance, the revolution does succeed prove that it’s awful anyway. For the religious Marxist it provides a useful additional banker in the permutation of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, when they make their genuflection. For the revolutionary Marxist, Luxemburg provides an object lesson in the application of the Marxist method to a particular time and place and of an uncompromising revolutionary position regardless of consequence. In this lies her heritage; a heritage of which she would have been justly proud.



1. J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (two volumes), Oxford, £6 6s, 984pp.

2. The Class, the Party and the Leadership, Workers’ International Review Pamphlet No.2, London, n.d., p.7.

3. Leninism or Marxism?, p.84., quoted Nettl, p.287.

4. Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, Twayne Publishers, New York 1964, p.180.

5. Fischer, Stalin and German Communism.


Last updated on 19.10.2006