Rosa Luxemburg

The Russian Tragedy

(September 1918)

Written: September 1918.
Source: Spartacus, No.11, 1918.
Transcription/Markup: Dario Romeo and Brian Baggins.
Online Version: Rosa Luxemburg Internet Archive ( 2000.

Since the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Russian Revolution has entered into a very difficult phase. The policy which has guided the Bolsheviks’ action is obvious: peace at any price in order to gain a respite, during which they can expand and consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, and realize as many socialist reforms as possible. They plan in this way to await the outbreak of the international proletariat revolution and at the same time to expedite it by the Russian example. Since the utter war-weariness of the Russian masses and the simultaneous military disorganization bequeathed by Tsarism appeared in any case to make the continuation of the war a futile shedding of Russian blood, there was no other way out but to conclude peace as quickly as possible. This is how Lenin and his comrades assessed the situation.

Their decision was dictated by two revolutionary viewpoints: by the unshakable faith in the European revolution of the proletariat as the sole way out and the inevitable consequence of the world war, and by their equally unshakable resolve to defend by any means possible the power they had gained in Russia, in order to use it for the most energetic and radical changes.

And yet these calculations largely overlooked the most crucial factor, namely German militarism, to which Russia surrendered unconditionally through the separate peace. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was in reality nothing but the capitulation of the revolutionary Russian proletariat to German militarism. Admittedly Lenin and his friends deluded neither themselves no other about the facts. They candidly admitted their capitulation. Unfortunately, they did deceive themselves in hoping to purchase a genuine respite at the price of this capitulation, to enable them to save themselves from the hellfire of the world war by means of a separate peace. They did no take into account the fact that the capitulation of Russia at Brest-Litovsk meant an enormous strengthening of the imperialist Pan-German policy and thus a lessening of the chances for a revolutionary rising in Germany. Nor did they see that this capitulation would bring about not the end of the war against Germany, but merely the beginning of a new chapter of this war.

In fact the ‘peace’ of Brest-Litovsk is an illusion. Not for a moment was there peace between Russia and Germany. War has continued since Brest-Litovsk up to the present time, but the war is a unique one, waged only by one side: systematic German advance and tacit Bolshevik retreat, step by step. Occupation of the Ukraine, Finland, Lithuania, Estonia, the Crimea, the Caucasus, larger and larger tracts of the southern Russia – this is the result of the ‘state of peace’ since Brest-Litovsk.

And this has meant a number of things. In the first place, the strangulation of the revolution and the victory of the counter-revolution in the revolutionary strongholds of Russia. For Finland, the Baltic provinces, the Ukraine, the Caucasus, the Black Sea region – this is all Russia, namely the terrain of the Russian Revolution, no matter what the empty, petit-bourgeois phrase-mongers may babble about the ‘right of national self-determination’.[1]

Secondly, this means the isolation of the Great Russian part of the revolutionary terrain from the grain-growing and coal-mining region and from the sources of iron-ore and naphtha, that is, from the most important and vital economic resources of the revolution.

Thirdly, the encouragement and strengthening of all counter-revolutionary elements within Russia, thus enabling them to offer the strongest resistance to the Bolsheviks and their measures.

Fourthly, Germany will play the role of arbiter in Russia’s political and economic relation with all of its own provinces: Finland, Lithuania, the Ukraine and the Caucasus, as well as with the neighbors, for example Rumania.

The overall result of this unrestricted and unlimited German power over Russia was naturally an enormous strengthening of German imperialism both internally and externally, and thereby of course a heightening of the white-hot resistance and war-readiness of the Entente powers, i.e. prolongation and intensification of the world war. And indeed there is more: Russia’s defencelessness, as revealed by the progressive German occupation, must naturally tempt the Entente and Japan to instigate a counter-action on Russian territory in order to combat Germany’s huge predominance and at the same time to satisfy their imperialist appetites at the expense of the defenceless colossus. Now the north and east of European Russia, as well as the whole of Siberia, are cut off, and the Bolsheviks are isolated form their last sources of essential supplies.

The end result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk is thus to encircle, starve out and strangle the Russian revolution from all sides.

But also within the country, in the terrain that the Germans did leave to the Bolsheviks, the power and the policies of the revolution were forced into difficult straits. The assassinations of Mirbach and Eichhorn[2] are a tangible response to the reign of terror of German imperialism in Russia. Social Democracy, to be sure, has always rejected terror as an individual act, but only because it considered the mass struggle to be the more effective method, not because it preferred to tolerate passively reactionary despotism. It is of course only one of the W.T.B’s [Wolff’s Telegraphic Bureau’s] many falsifications that says the Left-wing Social Revolutionaries carried out these assassinations at the instigation or on the orders of the Entente. These assassinations were intended either as a signal for a mass uprising against German rule or they were only impulsive acts of revenge born of despair and hatred of the bloody German rule. However, whatever their intention, they gravely endangered the cause of the revolution in Russia by creating divisions within the hitherto ruling socialist groups. They drove a wedge between the Bolsheviks and the Left-wing Social Revolutionaries; indeed, they created an abyss and a mortal enmity between the two wings of the revolutionary army. [3]

Admittedly the social differences – the antithesis between the property-owning peasantry and the peasant-proletariat and others – would sooner or later have created a split between the Bolsheviks and the Left-wing Social Revolutionaries. Until the Mirbach assassination, however, events did not appear to have progressed so far. In any case, it is a fact that the Left-wing Social Revolutionaries lent their support to the Bolsheviks. The October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to the helm, the breaking up of the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks’ reform until now, would have hardly been possible without the co-operation of the Left-wing Social Revolutionaries. Only Brest-Litovsk and its after-effects drove the wedge between the two wings. Now German imperialism appears as the arbiter between the Bolsheviks an their revolutionary allies of yesterday, just as it is the arbiter of their (the Bolsheviks’) relations with the Russian border provinces and their neighbouring states. Because of this, the resistance to the Bolsheviks’ rule and reform measures, huge in any case, will increase. Because of this, it is clear that the basis upon which their rule rests has been significantly diminished. Probably this internal falling-out and division of the heterogeneous elements of the revolution was inevitable, just as it is inevitable in the progressive radicalization of every developing revolution. Now, however, a controversy over the brutal German military dictatorship as in fact entered into the Russian Revolution. German imperialism is the thorn in the flesh of the Russian Revolution.

Yet this is not the full extent of the danger! The iron circle of the world war, which seemed to have been broken in the east, is once again relentlessly encompassing the whole world: the Entente is advancing with Czech and Japanese troops from the north and east as a natural, inevitable consequence of Germany’s offensive from the west and south. The flames of the world war are leaping across Russian soil and at any moment may engulf the Russian Revolution. To withdraw from the world war – even at the price of the greatest sacrifices – is something which, at the final analysis, it is simply impossible for Russia to do.

And now the most terrible prospect looms ahead of the Bolsheviks, the final stage of their path and thorns – an alliance between the Bolsheviks and Germany! This, to be sure, would forge the final link in that disastrous chain which the world war has hung around the neck of the Russian Revolution: first retreat, then capitulation and finally an alliance with German imperialism. In this way the Russian Revolution would be dragged by the world war, from which it sought to withdraw at any price, over to the opposite camp – from the side of the Entente while under the Tsar to German side under the Bolsheviks.[4]

It is to the everlasting credit of the Russian revolutionary proletariat that its first gesture following the outbreak of the revolution was a refusal to continue to fight as a levies of Franco-English imperialism. In view of the international situation, however, to render military service to German imperialism is even worse.

Trotsky is supposed to have said that if Russia had to choose between Japanese and German occupation, she would choose the latter, since Germany was far more ripe from revolution than Japan. The agonizing aspect of this speculation is obvious. For Japan is not Germany’s only opponent; so, too, are England and France, and of these no one is able to say whether or not their internal situations are more favourable than Germany’s to the proletarian revolution.

Trotsky’s reasoning is completely wrong, however, since the prospects and possibilities of a revolution in Germany are dimmed each time German militarism is strengthened or gains a victory.

But then other considerations, quite different from these apparently realistic ones, must be taken into account. An alliance between the Bolsheviks and German imperialism would be the most terrible moral blow that could be delivered against international socialism. Russia was the one last corner where revolutionary socialism, purity of principle an ideals, still held away. It was a place to which all sincere socialist elements in Germany and Europe could look in order to find relief from the disgust they felt at the practice of the West European labor movement, in order to arm themselves with the courage to persevere and in faith in pure actions and sacred words. The grotesque ‘coupling’ of Lenin and Hindenburg would extinguish the source of moral light in the east. It is obvious that the German rulers are holding a gun to the Soviet government’s head and are exploiting its desperate situation in order to force this monstrous alliance upon it. But we hope that Lenin and his friends do not surrender a any price and that they answer this unreasonable demand with a categorical: ‘This far but no further!’

A socialist revolution supported by German bayonets, the dictatorship of the proletariat under the patronage of German imperialism – this would be the most monstrous event that we could hope to witness. And what is more, it would be pure utopianism. Quite apart from the fact that the moral prestige of the Bolsheviks would be destroyed in the country, they would lose all freedom of movement and independence even in domestic policy, and within a very shirt time would disappear from the scene altogether. Any child can see that Germany is only waiting for an opportunity of combining with a Milyukov, a Hetman or God knows what other obscure gentleman and political dabblers, to put an end to the Bolshevik splendor. They await merely an opportunity for casting Lenin and comrades (as they cast the Ukrainians, the Lybinskys and the rest) in the role of Trojan horse, a role which, when played out, means suicide for the actors.

If this were to be happen, all the sacrifices until now, including the great sacrifice of Brest-Litovsk, would have been totally in vain, for the price of the sacrifice would ultimately be moral bankruptcy. Any political destruction of the Bolsheviks in a honest struggle against the overwhelming forces and hostile pressures of the historical situation would be preferable to the moral destruction.

The Bolsheviks have certainly made a number of mistakes in their policies and are perhaps still making them – but where is the revolution in which no mistakes have been made! The notion of a revolutionary policy without mistakes, and moreover, in a totally unprecedented situation, is so absurd that it is worthy only of a German schoolmaster. If the so-called leaders of German socialism lose their so-called heads in such an unusual situation as a vote in the Reichstag, and if their hearts sink into their boots and they forget all the socialism they ever learned in situation in which the simple abc of socialism clearly pointed the way – could one expect a party caught up in a truly thorny situation, in which it would show the world new wonders, not to make mistakes?

The awkward position that the Bolsheviks are in today, however, is, together with most of their mistakes, a consequence of basic insolubility of the problem posed to them by he international, above all the German, proletariat. To carry out the dictatorship of the proletariat and a socialist revolution in a single country surrounded by reactionary imperialist rule and in the fury of the bloodiest world war in human history – that is squaring the circle. Any socialist party would have to fail in this task and perish – whether or not it made self-renunciation the guiding star of its policies.

We would like to see the spineless jelly-fish, the moaners, the Axelrods, Dans, Grigoryanz [5] or whatever their name are, who, mouths frothing, sing their plaintive song against the Bolsheviks in foreign lands. And – just look! – they have found a sympathetic ear in such heroes as StrØbel, Bernstein and Kautsky; we would like to see these Germans in the Bolsheviks’ place! All their superior understanding would rapidly exhaust itself in an alliance with the Milyukovs in domestic policy and with the Entente in foreign policy; to this would be added a conscious renunciation of all socialist reforms, or even of any move in this direction, in domestic policy – all this due to the conscious eunuch wisdom that says Russia is an agricultural country and Russian capitalism is not adequately cooked.

Such is the false logic of the objective situation: any socialist party that came to power in Russia today must pursue the wrong tactics so long as it, as part of the international proletarian army, is left in the lurch by the main body of this army.

The blame of the Bolsheviks’ failures is borne in the final analysis by the international proletariat and above all by the unprecedented and persistent baseness of German Social Democracy. This party which in peace-time pretended to march at the head of the world proletariat, which presumed to advise and lead the whole world, which in its own country counted at least ten million supporters of both sexes – this is the party which has nailed socialism to the cross twenty-four hours a day for the four years at the bidding of the ruling class like venal mercenaries of the Middle Ages.

The news now arriving from Russia about the situation of the Bolsheviks is a moving appeal to what vestiges of honour remain in the masses of German workers and soldiers. They have cold-bloodedly left the Russian Revolution to be torn to pieces, encircled and starve out. Let them now intervene, even at the eleventh hour, to save the revolution from the most terrible fate: from moral suicide, from an alliance with German imperialism.

There is only one solution to the tragedy in which Russia in caught up: an uprising at the rear of German imperialism, the German mass rising, which can signal the international revolution to put an end to this genocide. At this fateful moment, preserving the honour of the Russian Revolution is identical with vindicating that of the German proletariat and of international socialists.


[1] Most likely a reference to Lenin, who repeatedly stressed the need of self-determination for the national minorities of Russia; while in office Lenin convinced the Soviet government to give the national minority regions of Russia such as Finland, Ukraine, Belarussia, the Caucassusian states, the Baltic states and others the right to secede from Russia. The Soviet policy of self-determination for national minorities was changed sometime after Lenin left office.

[2] Field-Marshal von Eichhorn, commander of the German forces in the Ukraine, and Count Marbach-Harff, German ambassador, were assassinated by the Russian Socialist Revolutionary party in July 1918 in an attempt to renew the war with Germany.

[3] Rosa Luxemburg writes this soon after the hostilities and break between the two parties. Some months later the Left-SR party dissolved, with most members rejoining the Soviet government.

[4] This was popular speculation, beginning with the sealed train that carried Lenin, along with 31 other Socialists spanning the political spectrum, through Germany to Finland (Russia), during WWI. No kind of alliance was established between the Soviet Union and Germany. After the Entente’s military failure in Russia, the opposite began: the Entente powers sided with Germany against the Soviet Union, and until 1939 allowed German militarism to rape small nations unhindered, assured that the German armies would march straight to Moscow.

[5] Leading Menshevik critics of the Soviet government.

Last updated on: 16.12.2008