Max Shachtman


Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg

(March 1935)

From New International, vol.2 No.2, March 1935, pp.60-64.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

ONE OF THE marked features of the decay of official communism has been the rending of the theoretical web woven by its intellectual founders. The violence with which the central ideas of modern revolutionary Marxism have been torn to shreds and thrown into discard is matched only by the coercion exercized by the bureaucracy to compel adulation of its enthroned ignorance. Insisting upon acknowledgment of the infallibility of its own theory, the central leadership then wards off all criticism of the ensuing errors by the theory of its own infallibility. To sustain both, in face of the paucity of its intellectual contributions to Marxism and the accusing record of its achievements, it is constantly compelled to pervert or defame the work of those gifted leaders whose places it usurped. The bureaucracy must reduce the proportion of its own dwarfishness by dragging its great forerunners, to whose level it cannot rise, down to an inferior position. It thereby acquires the semblance of greater stature. This helps not only to console a dubious following, but reassures the bureaucracy itself against its own uncertainty.

With no one is this process more clearly revealed than with the personal incarnation of the regime, Stalin. The two greatest victims in the domain of ideas are Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, each in his own way. What has happened to Lenin is even worse than the fate which he once pointed out as having been accorded to Karl Marx and other great revolutionary leaders: “After their death, however, attempts are usually made to turn them into harmless saints, canonizing them, as it were, and investing their name with a certain halo by way of ‘consolation’ to the oppressed classes, and with the object of duping them; while at the same time emasculating and vulgarizing the real essence of their revolutionary theories and blunting their revolutionary edge.” The Stalinists have not felt themselves under even such restraint with regard to Rosa Luxemburg. Against her tradition and heritage, which was so warmly if critically cherished in Lenin’s day, a veritable blackguard’s offensive has been systematically nurtured since Lenin died. Whereas the ideas she defended bring her, so to speak, up to Lenin’s shoulders, she nevertheless towers grandly above the Stalinist pygmies. To strengthen the illusion of their height, Rosa Luxemburg had therefore to be dragged down into the dirt. The kindest thing that can be said about the bureaucracy’s defamations of Rosa is that they have never served the interests of critical enlightenment but have always been subverted to meet factional exigencies.

The very first “Bolshevization” wave which inundated the Communist International was directed not only at the Marxian principles defended by Trotsky, but had as one of its purposes the discreditment of Luxemburg. In the first “Bolshevization Commission” of 1925, such luminaries as Bela Kun, John Pepper, Heinz Neumann and Stalin solemnly elaborated the outlines of an assault upon the “Luxemburgian deviation”. In the German Communist party which Rosa had founded, it was possible for one of the newly appointed leaders of that time to declare publicly that “Luxemburg is the syphilis of the labor movement” without being driven out of the party with whips. The complete edition of Rosa’s works, which the party had begun to issue under the scholarly care of Paul Frölich, was brought to an abrupt end and no new volume has since been published. In 1931, the campaign reached its climax in Stalin’s libellous letter to the editors of Proletarskaia Revolutsia on “Questions Concerning the History of Bolshevism”. The official line of the present bureaucracy with regard to Rosa’s role in the labor movement derives directly from this letter, which is now obligatory doctrine. The formal occasion for the letter was an article written by one Slutsky in which he pointed out that Lenin had “underestimated the danger of Centrism in the German social democracy” before the war. For more than a year the article went unchallenged and uncriticized. Stalin brought it out of obscurity, used it for a violent attack upon Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky, and designated the pre-war Left wing in the European social democracy whose most eminent leader Rosa was, as semi-Mensheviks or allies of Menshevism.

The letter was the signal for a world-wide campaign of denigration against Rosa. It reached its lowest depth in the book of the one Stalinist disciple, Kurt Sauerland, in which he asserted nothing more or less than that “the legend of the ‘betrayal’ of the once ‘true’ Marxist [Kautsky] does not stand up under a careful analysis” – a declaration that must have been consoling to Kautsky; that Rosa and the pre-war Left wing were distinguished “only formally from the social-Fascist theoreticians”; and that today Rosa’s “theories have especially become the weapons of Trotskyism and other counter-revolutionary groupings”. (Der Dialektische Materialismus, p.133) [1]

It is not in order to show where Lenin had a keener, profounder and more comprehensive view of the problems of the proletarian revolution than Rosa that this rubbish is crammed into hollow skulls, but in order to establish the genius of Stalin by perverting what Lenin and Luxemburg really stood for and officially establishing an unbridgable gulf between the two.

The object of these lines, therefore, will be an attempt to restore to their proper proportions the divergences between the two great revolutionary spirits whose anniversaries have just been observed. If it is easier to do it now than it was a decade or more ago, it is certainly not because of any light shed on the relationships by the Stalinists, but because, as Heine said somewhere about Goethe, only now that the great oak has fallen can we measure its full stature.

The sharpest dispute between Lenin and Luxemburg in the period of the Second International occurred over the national question – the right of self-determination of nations and national minorities – and specifically over the question of the socialist attitude towards the question of Poland. Current communist indoctrination dismisses Luxemburg’s position with the assertion that she “denied” the right of self-determination, but the dispute was far from being quite so simple.

The common goal of the Russian social democracy at the beginning of the century was the democratic revolution against czarist absolutism. The politically organized proletariat of Russia pledged itself to carry out consistently that liberation of oppressed nationalities which a revolutionary bourgeoisie had once accomplished in whole or in part. The national problem was particularly acute for a country like the Russian empire in which not even a majority of the population was composed of Russians properly so called. For the Russian Marxists, it was taken for granted that the proletariat would accord the imprisoned nationalities of the empire the right to self-determination even to the point of complete independence and separation, should that prove to be the democratically expressed will of the people involved. This view was shared by both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and, especially when applied to Poland, merely continued the tradition of Marx and Engels.

Opposed to the formulation of this slogan in the Russian party program (§ 7) was the party led by Luxemburg, the Social Democracy of Poland and Lithuania. Its position was set out right before and during the London congress of the Russian party in 1903, to which, on the insistence of Lenin, Martov, Plekhanov and Trotsky, it had been invited despite the opposition of the Jewish Bund, and the fact that the SDPL had set as a condition for joining the Russian party the reformulation of § 7.

The congress had been preceded by a warm discussion in the radical press on precisely this question. The chauvinists of the PPS (Polish Socialist party) had attacked an article in Iskra which recognized the right of self-determination and had opposed to it their own nationalistic point of view. In his defense of Martov’s article, Lenin reaffirmed the party’s position but pointed out that this was not identical with the obligation to support every demand for self-determination at every moment, any more than the demand for the right to organize is synonymous with the obligation to defend the organizing work of Jesuits. In this conditioning of the right, that is, in essence, the subordination of the national struggle to the interests of the class struggle, Lenin established the difference between bourgeois democracy, even at its best, and the revolutionary social democracy. While it was not likely, he pursued, that the Polish bourgeoisie would raise the slogan of independence under conditions in which the national question had been pushed to the background by the open class struggle, it was at the same time possible that it would, and the social democracy would err greatly in binding itself in advance against such a possibility.

Luxemburg’s criticism, which was directed mainly and primarily against the Polish nationalists and not against Lenin, was not based upon opposition to recognizing the right at issue. Proceeding from the contention that the truth was always concrete, she asserted that Lenin had failed to give a concrete analysis of the political possibilities for Polish independence at the given time. The latter could be the result only of a general European war and a Russian revolution evoked by it, or vice versa. The Polish revolutionists, however, refused to make a European war the point of departure for the policy of the Polish working class. Should the Poles fight together with the Russian proletariat against absolutism – she asked Lenin at the Congress – or separately from the Russians and therefore with the bourgeoisie for independence from the empire? And in the first case, in what concrete form was it possible to realize the right of the Polish nation to self-determination without subordinating the class interests of the growing proletariat to those of the Polish bourgeoisie?

Her views were elaborated in greater detail in the articles she wrote for the Polish theoretical review in 1908 and in her introduction to the collection of articles on the national question printed in 1905. Again, it should be emphasized that she did not deny the right of all nations and national minorities to dispose of themselves as they saw fit, for this was to her an “obvious and uncontested” right, “conforming to the elementary principles of socialism”. It was not, however, to be realized under capitalism. “Socialism,” she wrote during the war in the famous Junius pamphlet, “grants every people the right to independence and freedom, to independent disposal over its own destiny ... International socialism recognizes the right of free, independent nations having equal rights, but only it can create such nations, only it can realize the right of self-determination of the peoples.” But to advocate the independence of Poland would produce, she argued, precisely what Lenin, in polemizing against the Polish nationalists in 1903, warned against: the corruption of the class consciousness and independence of the proletariat, the confusion of the class struggle, the impregnation of the workers with petty bourgeois democratic phraseology, the disruption of the unity of the proletariat throughout the empire in its common struggle against czarism.

To proclaim this right, Rosa contended, would not result in a positive solution of the national question. In defending it, the proletariat would inevitably come under the domination of the nationalist bourgeoisie, eventually become the football of the big imperialist powers, and lose both its independent identity and the possibility of fulfilling its historical mission. From the international standpoint, also, socialist policy could not include the establishment of an independent Poland (under conditions of capitalism, be it always understood), for that would bind the social democracy to demand the separation of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from Germany and their return to France, the promotion of the separatist aspirations of the Czechs, the acquisition of Trieste by Italy, etc. – support to all of which would simply mean that the social democracy obligates itself willy-nilly to serve one national imperialism or another in a capitalist war, that being the only means by which any of these aspirations could be realized outside of the socialist revolution. Examination into the concrete possibilities of realizing the right of self-determination, she therefore concluded, especially when it is considered that the right is worldwide and consequently includes the colonial empires of imperialism, excludes the struggle for it under capitalism as Utopian, and makes it realizable only in the socialist society.

Although she modified many of her other criticisms of Lenin and Bolshevism towards the end of her life, there is no doubt that she retained her point of view on the national question to the last. Under her leadership, the Poles did not, to my knowledge, ever make the demand again for the elimination of § 7 from the Russian party program after the fight at the London congress. At the famous Stockholm unity congress in 1910, their formulation – an autonomous Russian-Poland within the borders of a democratic Russian republic – was accepted by both the Bolshevik and Menshevik groups, which thus met what the Poles considered their demand for a concrete formulation at once of the method of realizing the right of self-determination and of the most expedient form of the slogan. (Thereby, be it noted in passing, the Poles yielded their fundamental position, as will become clearer further on.) However that may be, the public polemic between Luxemburg and Lenin was resumed by the latter, after a silence of ten years, in 1913, carried through during the black war years, and summed up, so far as Rosa’s position is concerned, in the critical commentaries on the Russian revolution written just before her assassination in her Spartakus letters and in the posthumously published manuscript issued by Paul Levi and written for his benefit.

Against Rosa’s position, as well as against those similarly inclined, Lenin mustered a series of arguments which contain the essence of the Marxian teaching on the national question and retain their fundamental validity to the present day.

Socialism requires democracy and democratic forms; in realizing them to the fullest degree, it abolishes them; the communist society is at hand. From the standpoint of international democracy, it is impossible to gainsay the right of any people to self-determination. As against the forcible retention of a national minority within the frontiers of an oppressor power, the aspiration to independence of this minority is a progressive democratic factor. The proletariat of the oppressing nation cannot refuse to grant the oppressed nation the right to national independence, if and when it is demanded by the latter, without becoming an accomplice in its oppression. From this it does not follow that the socialists of the oppressed nation are obliged to support the national aspirations of this or that people (or the bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie of this or that nation), at any and every moment that such aspirations are manifested. Nor does it follow that even the socialists of the oppressor nation, while they support the demand for national independence to the point of separation, are obliged to advocate such a separation. The two are not identical, any more than the advocacy of the right to divorce is identical with advocating that one particular woman should divorce her husband.

“We have never reproached the Polish social democrats (I wrote on that score in Prozveshchenye) because they are against the independence of Poland,” Lenin wrote during the war to the Georgian Bolshevik, N.D. Kiknadze. “Instead of a simple, clear, theoretically indisputable argument: one cannot be for such a democratic demand at present (an independent Poland), which subjects us in practise completely to one of the imperialist powers of coalitions (this is indisputable, this is enough; this is necessary and adequate) – instead of this they attained to the absurd ‘unrealizable’.” (Werke, Vol.XIX, pp.290f.)

Theoretically, moreover, it is not unrealizable even under capitalism. Lenin offered the example of the separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905, which was accomplished under bourgeois democracy and in accordance with the exercize by the Norwegians of the right of self-determination. What is more, the fact that the Poles recognized their Stockholm formula (referred to above) as the concrete form in which the slogan could be realized for Poland, signified an acknowledgment in principle of the realizability of the demand even within the confines of capitalism, namely, of a Russian democratic republic. If there is a difference in the two positions, and there is, it lies in the fact, continued Lenin, that the demand for the autonomy of Poland within a democratic Russia is a reformist measure, whereas the struggle for Polish independence is a revolutionary fight.

An argument advanced by Lenin which none of his adversaries was able to answer with even slight effectiveness, dealt with the socialist position on annexations. Socialists oppose the forcible annexation of one country, one piece of territory, by another. How then is it possible to oppose the right of self-determination of nations already annexed ? To hold such a view means to oppose only such annexations as are being planned, but to ignore those that have already been effected. Those who are theoretically against annexations and at the same time theoretically against the right of self-determination (between which there is “neither an economic nor a political, nor any kind of logical distinction”) were plastered by Lenin with the not very comforting label of “inconsistent annexationists”.

“We do not want to dispute over words,” he wrote in reply to the theses on the subject issued during the war by the extremist editorial board of Gaseta Robotnicsa, organ of the Polish social democracy, who went further than Rosa in that they characterized the slogan as not only unrealizable under capitalism, but inapplicable under socialism. “If there is a party which declares in its program (or in a resolution binding upon all – the form is not the point) that it is against annexations, against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of its (this party’s) state, then we declare that we are in complete agreement in principle with such a party. It would be absurd to want to cling to the words ‘right of self-determination’.” (Werke, Vol.XIX, p.305.)

That Lenin nevertheless concurred with Rosa in her apprehensions about the chauvinistic dangers entailed by advocating the independence of Poland at any and all times, and that he had a high regard for her revolutionary, internationalist struggle against the Polish patriots of the Pilsudski-Daszynski-Niedzialkowski stripe, is beyond dispute.

“To be for a European war solely for the sake of the restoration of Poland – that would mean to be a nationalist of the worst sort,” he wrote in 1916, “to put the interests of a small number of Poles higher than the interests of hundreds of millions of people who suffer by the war. Such are however, e.g., the ‘Fraki’ (Right wing of the PPS) who are socialists only in words and against whom the Polish social democrats are right a thousand times over. To raise the slogan of Poland’s independent now, in face of the present relationships between the neighboring imperialist states, means in fact to chase after a Utopia, to fall into narrow nationalism, to forget the promise of a European or at least of the Russian and the German revolutions ... It is no paradox, but a fact, that the Polish proletariat as such can today serve the cause of socialism and freedom, also Polish, only if it fights together with the proletariat of the neighboring states against the narrow-Polish nationalists. It is impossible to dispute the great historical service of the Polish social democrats [i.e., of Rosa Luxemburg] in the struggle against these latter.” (Werke, Vol. XIX, p. 329f.)

Yet while this probably came closer to Rosa’s position than any other writings by Lenin on the subject, and most directly met her demand for a concrete answer as to whether the slogan of independence for Poland could be raised under given conditions – Lenin’s answer at that time being, No – he nevertheless insisted at the same time that both the Russian and German social democracies must continue to stand unconditionally in favor of Poland’s right to state separation.

Recognition of the right of self-determination was no abstraction to Lenin. Like all democratic slogans, he emphasized time and again, it was subordinated at all times to the socialist-revolutionary class interests of the proletariat. But just because the latter was primary and dominant, the slogan had to be put forward as part of the general support which the working class, in its struggle for emancipation, gives to every movement genuinely directed against the common enemy: imperialism. Despite the sharp criticism levelled by Rosa at the Bolsheviks for their national policy after the revolution, the latter was nevertheless confirmed by the results. The national aspirations aroused by the first 1917 revolution even among the most backward and remote peoples of old Russia encountered a revolutionary support only from the Bolsheviks. One of the main reasons why the Kerensky-Menshevik-S.R. regime had the ground taken from under its feet, lay in the fact that it ignored or flaunted these aspirations. The Bolshevik revolution triumphed not only because it was “reinforced” – as Marx indicated it would have to be – by the peasants’ war but also because the proletarian hammer-blows at the bourgeois state were supplemented by the coincidental blows delivered from the periphery by the various national-revolutionary movements.

The territorial disintegration of the Russian revolution, and its consequent collapse, proved to be an unjustified fear expressed by Rosa in her 1918 criticisms, in which she so acidly ridiculed the idea of a “Ukrainian nation”. That centralization, “big-stateism”, which is the socialist ideal, was realized in Russia not along a rigid and straight line, but dialectically, as a process, which began with recognizing the right of each nation to separate, actually granting the separation, strengthening the proletarian movement and sharpening the class struggle in the separated nation, the victory of the proletariat in the struggle, and finally the federal reaffiliation into a centralized union of Soviet states. If Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Esthonia and other parts of the former czarist empire today still remain without the comity of the Soviet family, and are in the hands of stark reaction, the reason is not to be traced to Lenin’s national policy, but rather to objective conditions beyond the control of the Bolsheviks and their theories, conditions which Rosa’s writings acknowledged, at least in part: the failure of the western European proletariat to come to the direct aid of the Russian revolution when it was backed against the wall by German arid Allied imperialism; the weakness of the revolutionary movement in the countries named.

What was the source of Rosa’s position on the national question, which caused Lenin, with all his esteem for her and her work, to polemize against her so vehemently? He himself traced the position of both the Polish and Dutch opponents of the slogan to their situation within small nations with century-old traditions and “Great-Power” pretensions which had an imperceptible effect even on the radical wing of the labor movement. The assertion requires elaboration and supplementing.

When Rosa began to unfold her activity in the Polish labor movement, the scene was already swarming with the activity of the Bund, which defended a national-separatist position among the Jewish workers of Poland and Lithuania, and the notorious PPS, which defended an even more nationalistic position among the Polish masses. Deeply impregnated with the spirit of Marxian internationalism from the first day on which she drew breath in the labor movement, Rosa flung herself into the battle against PPS nationalism from the very beginning, with the impestuous energy that never left her. So violent was her struggle against the Polish chauvinists, and so cordially did they detest her, that a scandal occurred at the Zurich congress of the Second International in 1893, when her credentials were successfully contested by Ignacy Daszynski, whose malicious machinations won the unwitting support, alas! even of Friedrich Engels. There is no doubt that in the ardor of her unremitting struggle against the poisoning of the Polish proletariat by the PPS, she was led, as so often happens in political battle, to bend the rod too much the other way.

The events in the socialist movement just before and during the war were not calculated to correct her position; if anything, they served only to confirm her in her opinions. How important it is to recall, in appraising her position, how others, besides Lenin (and in contradistinction to him), manipulated the slogan of the right of self-determination! Plekhanov justified his support of the Russian fatherland against Junker invasion by basing himself on the right of the Russian people to determine their own fate! Vandervelde and Scheidemann sent their working class followers to slaughter each other in the name of socialism and the right of every nation to self-determination! Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George dismembered one vanquished power after another, and created new powers which were only prisons for a dozen national minorities, in the name of the right of self-determination! In its name, Kühlmann, Hoffmann, Czernin, Popov and Talaat Pasha tore away the Ukraine, Poland, Finland, Esthonia, Courland, Livonia, Lithuania, Ardahan, Kars and Batum from the territory of revolutionary Russia by virtue of the Brest-Litovsk treaty!

Her reconfirmed opposition to the slogan lay not so much in the fact that she directed it against the Bolsheviks, but because, as she saw it, it was being directed against the Bolsheviks. And her vitriolic comments upon the imperialist perversion of the slogan preserve their freshness and fitness to this day.

“The bloody orgies of Mannerheim, the Finnish Gallifet, show how much the hate germinated in the white heat of the last year in the bosom of all these ‘small nations’, all the Poles, Lithuanians, Rumanians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Croats, etc., only awaits the possibility of finally disemboweling its own revolutionary proletariat by ‘national’ means. From all these ‘young’ nations, who gambol on the meadows of world history like lambs, white and innocent, there already gleams the carbuncular eye of the savage tiger, who waits for a ‘reckoning’ with the first stirrings of ‘Bolshevism’. Behind all the idyllic banquets and uproarious feasts of fraternization in Vienna, in Prague, in Agram, in Warsaw, there already yawn Mannerheim’s open graves which the Red Guardsmen must scoop out for themselves, there loom like blurred shadows the gallows of Kharkov, for whose erection the Lubinskys and Holubovitches invited the German ‘liberators’ to the Ukraine. And the same fundamental thought dominates the whole democratic peace program of Wilson. The ‘League of Nations’, in the atmosphere of triumphal intoxication of Anglo-American imperialism, and the terrible phantom of Bolshevism haunting the stage of the world, can bring forth but one thing: a bourgeois world alliance for the suppression of the proletariat. The first smoking sacrifice that the high priest Wilson will bring before the Ark of the Covenant of the ‘League of Nations’ on the spikes of his augurs, will be Bolshevik Russia, at which the ‘self-determined nations’, victor and vanquished together, will fling themselves.” (Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, Vol.XIII, p. 286f.)

If Rosa underestimated the resistance power of the Russian revolution, she did not understate the aim of Wilson’s League and its slogan.

It is a vain occupation to speculate on whether or not Rosa would have come to Lenin’s position on the national question had the assassin’s blows been spared her. But all that she embodied and stood for, her whole life’s work and the priceless heritage she left not only to the Polish workers but to all of us, entitles us to, believe that she would never have accepted the wretched caricature, of Lenin’s views which his successors have palmed off in his name.

The current. teaching of an immaculate Bolshevism and equally immaculate Bolsheviks set off against a badly suspect “Luxemburgism”, both of which every quickly-baked “theoretician” now solemnly assures us existed, is pure legend. That there was Lenin, is true; but only one. His sharpest shafts on the national question were directed, during the war, against leading spirits of his own party: N. Bukharin, N. Krylenko, G. Piatakov, Eugenie Bosch and Poles like Rozmirovitch (Radek) and Ganetzky, all of whom, unlike Rosa, denied the applicability of the right of self-determination even under socialism. Stalin’s views on the national question, expressed in Pravda before Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd, would have made Rosa’s lips curl in contempt. The violent remarks uttered by Lenin on the theories and practises of Stalin, Dzerzhinsky and Kamenev on the national question towards the end of 1922 (when Stalin accused Lenin of “national liberalism”!), are a matter of record. But all this pales by comparison with the theories and practises of the whole Stalin leadership in the national and colonial questions after Lenin’s death. Can one imagine Rosa in the company of those who strangled the Chinese revolution by attributing to Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese bourgeoisie the leading revolutionary role in “liberating the nation from the yoke of foreign imperialism”? Can one imagine Rosa in the company of those who hailed the 1926 coup d’état of Marshall Pilsudski as the “great national democrat” who was establishing the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” in Poland? Can one imagine Rosa in the company of those who for years glorified and canonized every nationalist demagogue who was gracious enough to send a visiting card to the Kremlin – Radic, Maniu, Hu Han Min, Macia, Amanullah, et tutti quanti? How contemptible are those who dismiss a Rosa Luxemburg with smug disdain as a “Menshevik”, when they have themselves proved unable to rise to the height of her boots?

Even now that the oak has fallen, her professional detractors are weeds around her. Rosa is still the great oak.



1. The measure of the Stalin school of theoreticians and its graduates can be taken by what this same abusive ignoramus says about Franz Mehring: “Mehring was not the ‘full-blooded dialectician’, Mehring was, ‘as we have proved [!], with all his lip-service to Marxism, a thorough eclecticist, mechanist and vulgar materialist, not without very strong idealistic features.” (Ibid., p. 173.) This about Mehring, in order to contend that, except for Lenin, the only “full-blooded dialectician” of our whole epoch is ... Stalin.

Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 15.4.2005