Max Shachtman


Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg

(May 1938)

Source: The New International, Vol. 4 No. 5, May 1938, pp. 141–144.
Transcribed & marked up: Sally Ryan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive, June 1999.

Two Legends have been created about the relationship between the views of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Despite their antagonistic origins and aims, they supplement each other in effect. Neither one of the myth-makers approaches the extremely interesting and instructive subject from an objective historical standpoint. Consequently, the analysis made by each of them reduces itself to an instrument of factional politics which is, in both cases, the politics of reaction.

One school of thought, if such a term is permissible here, is headed by the faculty of Stalinist falsification. It covers up its reactionary objectives by posing as critics of Luxemburg and proponents of Lenin. A discussion of its arguments is rendered impossible by the very nature of its position, which formally prohibits both argument and discussion. Its scientific value is summarized in a few sentences from the papal bull issued by Stalin in 1932 in connection with the luckless Slutsky’s study on Lenin’s incorrect appraisal of Kautsky and Luxemburg: “You wish to enter into discussion against this Trotskyist thesis of Slutsky’s? But what is there to discuss in this? Is it not plain that Slutsky is simply slandering Lenin, slandering the Bolsheviks? Slander must be branded, not transformed into a subject for discussion.” The Stalinists have the Catholics’ attitude toward their dogmas: they assume what is to be proved; their arbitrary conclusions are presented as their premises; their statement of the problem is at the same time their answer – and it brooks no discussion. “Bolshevism” is absolutely and at all points and stages irreconcilable with “Luxemburg-ism” because of the original sin of the latter in disputing the “organizational principles” of the former.

The other school of thought is less authoritarian in tone and form, but just as rigid in unhistorical dogma; and if, unlike the Stalinists, it is not wholly composed of turncoats from revolutionary Marxism, it has a substantial sprinkling of them. Their objectives are covered up by posing as critics of Lenin and defenders of Luxemburg. They include anachronistic philosophers of ultra-leftism and express-train travelers fleeing from the pestilence of Stalinism to the plague of social-democracy. Bolshevism, they argue, is definitely bankrupt. The horrors of Stalinism are the logical and inevitable outcome of Lenin’s “supercentralism”, or – as it is put by a recent critic, Listen Oak, who seeks the “inner flaws of Bolshevism” – of Lenin’s “totalitarianism”. Luxemburg, on the other hand, stressed the democratic side of the movement, the struggle, the goal. Hence, “Luxemburgism” is absolutely irreconcilable with “Bolshevism” because of the original sin, of the former in imposing its Jacobin, or bourgeois, or super-centralist, or totalitarian “organizational principles”.

The use of quotation marks around the terms employed is justified and necessary, for at least in nine cases out of ten the airy analysts have only the vaguest and most twisted idea of what the disputes between Luxemburg and Lenin really were. In just as many cases they have revealed a cavalier indisposition to acquaint themselves with the historical documents and the actual writings of the two great thinkers. A brief survey will disclose, I believe, the superficiality of the arguments which, especially since the obvious putrescence of Stalinism, have gained a certain currency in the radical movement.

Nothing but misunderstanding can result from a failure to bear in mind the fact that Lenin and Luxemburg worked, fought and developed their ideas in two distinctly different movements, operating within no less different countries, at radically different stages of development; consequently, in countries and movements where the problems of the working class were posed in quite different forms. It is the absence of this concrete and historical approach to the disputes between Lenin, of the Social-Democratic Labor Party of Russia, and Luxemburg, of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, that so surely brings most critics to grief.

The “organizational dispute” between Lenin and Luxemburg did not originate in the former’s insistence on a break with Kautsky and the centrists before the war. When Stalin thunders against anyone “who call doubt” that the Bolsheviks brought about “a split with their own opportunists and centrist-conciliators long before the imperialist war (1904-1912) without at the same time pursuing a policy of rupture, a policy of split with the opportunists and centrists of the Second International” – he is simply substituting ukase for historical fact.

The truth is that Rosa Luxemburg reached a clear estimate of Kautsky and broke with his self-styled “Marxian center”, long before Lenin did. For many years after the turn of the century, Kautsky’s prestige among all the factions of the Russian movement was unparalleled. The Menshevik Abramovich does not exaggerate when he writes that:

A West-European can hardly imagine the enormous authority which the leaders of the German social-democracy, the Liebknechts, the Bebels, the Singers, enjoyed in Russia. Among these leaders, Karl Kautsky occupied quite a special place...serving for all the Russian Marxists and social-democrats as the highest authority in all the theoretical and tactical questions of scientific socialism and the labor movement. In every disputed question, in every newly-arisen problem, the first thought always was: What would Kautsky say about this? How would Kautsky have decided this question?

Lenin’s much-disputed What to Do? held up, as is known, the German social-democracy and its leader, Bebel, as models for the Russian movement. When Kautsky wrote his famous article, after the 1905 revolution in Russia, on the Slavs and the world revolution, in which, Zinoviev writes, under Luxemburg’s influence, he advanced substantially the Bolshevik conception, Lenin was highly elated. “Where and when,” he wrote in July 1905, in a polemic against Parvus, “have I characterized the revolutionism of Bebel and Kautsky as ‘opportunism’? Where and when have I presumed to call into existence in the international social-democracy a special tendency which was not identical with the tendency of Bebel and Kautsky?” A year and a half later, Lenin wrote that “the vanguard of the Russian working class knows Karl Kautsky for some time now as its writer”, and a month later, in January 1907, he described Kautsky as “the leader of the German revolutionary social-democrats”. In August 1908, Lenin cited Kautsky as his authority on the question of war and militarism as against Gustave Hervé, and as late as February 1914, he invoked him again as a Marxian authority in his dispute with Rosa Luxemburg on the national question. Finally, in one of his last pre-war articles, in April 1914, Wherein the German Labor Movement Should Not Be Imitated, speaking of the “undoubted sickness” of the German social-democracy, he referred exclusively to the trade union leaders (specifically to Karl Legien) and the parliamentary spokesmen, but did not even mention Kautsky and the centrists, much less raise the question of the left wing (also unmentioned) splitting with them.

It is this pre-war attitude of Lenin towards the German center – against which Luxemburg had been conducting a sharp frontal attack as early as 1910 – that explains the vehemence and the significant terminology of Lenin’s strictures against Kautsky immediately after the war broke out, for example, his letter to Shliapnikov on October 27, 1914, in which he says: “I now despise and hate Kautsky more than all the rest ... R. Luxemburg was right, she long ago understood that Kautsky had the highly-developed ‘servility of a theoretician’ ...”

In sum, the fact is that by the very nature of her milieu and her work before the war, Rosa Luxemburg had arrived at a clearer and more correct appreciation of the German social-democracy and the various currents within it than had Lenin. To a great extent, this determined and explained her polemic against Lenin on what appeared to be the “organizational questions” of the Russian movement.

The beginning of the century marked the publication of two of Lenin’s most audacious and stirring works, One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward, and its forerunner, What to Do?. The Russian movement was then in no way comparable to the West-European, especially the German. It was composed of isolated groups and sections in Russia, more or less autonomous, pursuing policies at odds with each other and only remotely influenced by its great revolutionary Marxists abroad – Plekhanov, Lenin, Martov, Potressov, Trotsky and others. Moreover, the so-called “Economist” tendency was predominant; it laid the greatest stress on the element of spontaneity in the labor struggle and under-rated the element of conscious leadership.

Lenin’s What to Do? was a merciless criticism of “Economism”, which he identified with “pure-and-simple trade unionism”, with khovstism (i.e., the policy of dragging at the tail of events, or of the masses), with opportunism. Social-democracy, he argued, is not a mere outgrowth of the spontaneous economic struggles of the proletariat, nor is it the passive servant of the workers; it is the union of the labor movement with revolutionary socialist theory which must be brought into the working class by the party, for the proletariat, by itself, can only attain a trade-union and not a socialist consciousness. In view of the dispersion of the movement in Russia, its primitive and localistic complexion, an all-Russian national party and newspaper had to be created immediately to infuse the labor movement with a socialist, political consciousness and unite it in a revolutionary struggle against Czarism. The artificers of the party, in contrast with the desultory agitators of the time, would be the professional revolutionists, intellectuals and educated workers devoting all their time and energy to revolutionary activity and functioning within an extremely centralized party organization. The effective political leadership was to be the editorial board of the central organ, edited by the exiles abroad, and it would have the power to organize or reorganize party branches inside Russia, admit or reject members, and even appoint their local committees and other directing organs. I differ with the Mensheviks in this respect, wrote Lenin in 1904:

The basic idea of comrade Martov ... is precisely a false “democratism”, the idea of the construction of the party from the bottom to the top. My idea, on the contrary, is “bureaucratic” in the sense that the party should be constructed from above down to the bottom, from the congress to the individual party organizations.

It should be borne in mind that, despite subsequent reconsideration, all the leaders of the Iskra tendency in the Russian movement warmly supported Lenin against the Economists. “Twice in succession,” wrote A.N. Potressov, later Lenin’s furious enemy, “have I read through the booklet from beginning to end and can only congratulate its author. The general impression is an excellent one – in spite of the obvious haste, noted by the author himself, in which the work was written.” At the famous London Congress in 1903, Plekhanov spoke up in Lenin’s defense: “Lenin did not write a treatise on the philosophy of history, but a polemical article against the economists, who said: We must wait until we see where the working class itself will come, without the help of the revolutionary bacillus.” And again:”If you eliminate the bacillus, then there remains only an unconscious mass, into which consciousness must he brought from without. If you had wanted to be right against Lenin and if you had read through his whole book attentively, then you would have seen that this is just what he said.”

It was only after the deepening of the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks (Plekhanov included) that the latter launched their sharp attacks on Lenin’s polemical exaggeration – that is what it was – of the dominant role of the intellectuals as professional revolutionists, organizers and leaders of the party, and of the relationship between spontaneity and the element of socialist consciousness which can only be introduced into the labor movement from without. Lenin’s defense of the ideas he expressed in 1902 and 1904 on these questions and on centralism, is highly significant for an understanding of the concrete conditions under which they were advanced and the concrete aims they pursued:

These words define perfectly correctly the sense and significance of the Lenin brochure and if Plekhanov now says that he was not in agreement, from the very beginning, with its theoretical principles, it only proves how correctly he was able to judge the real significance of the brochure at a time when there was no necessity of inventing “differences of opinion in principle” with Lenin. In actuality, What to Do? was a polemical brochure (which was entirely dedicated to the criticism of the khvostist wing in the then social-democracy, to a characterization and a refutation of the specific errors of this wing). It would be ridiculous if Lenin, in a brochure which dealt with the “burning questions of our movement”, were to demonstrate that the evolution of ideas, especially of scientific socialism, has proceeded and proceeds in close historical connection with the evolution of the productive forces (in close connection with the growth of the labor movement in general). For him it was important to establish the fact that nowhere has the working class yet worked itself up independently to a socialist ideology, that this ideology (the doctrine of scientific socialism) was always brought in by the social-democracy.....

In 1903, at the Second Congress itself, Lenin had pointed out that “the Economists bent the staff towards the one side. In order to straighten it out again, it had to be bent towards the other side and that is what I did”, and almost two years later, in the draft of a resolution written for the Third Congress, he emphasized the non-universality of his organizational views by writing that “under free political conditions our party can and will be built up entirely upon the principle of electibility. Under absolutism, this is unrealizable for all the thousands of workers who belong to the party.” Again, in the period of the 1905 revolution, he showed how changes in conditions determined a change in his views:

At the Third Congress I expressed the wish that in the party committees there should be two intellectuals for every eight workers. How obsolete is this wish! Now it would be desirable that in the new party organizations, for every intellectual belonging to the social-democracy there should be a few hundred social-democratic workers.

Perhaps the best summary of the significance of the views he set forth at the beginning of the century is given by Lenin himself in the foreword to the collection, Twelve Years, which he wrote in September 1907:

The basic mistake of those who polemize against What to Do? today, is that they tear this work completely out of the context of a definite historical milieu, a definite, now already long past period of development of our party ... To speak at present about the fact that Iskra (in the years 1901 and 1902!) exaggerated the idea of the organization of professional revolutionists, is the same as if somebody had reproached the Japanese, after the Russo-Japanese war, for exaggerating the Russian military power before the war, for exaggerated concern over the struggle against this power. The Japanese had to exert all forces against a possible maximum of Russian forces in order to attain the victory. Unfortunately, many judge from the outside, without seeing that today the idea of the organization of professional revolutionists has already attained a complete victory. This victory, however, would have been impossible if, in its time, this idea had not been pushed into the foreground, if it hall not been preached in an “exaggerated” manner to people who stood like obstacles in the way of its realization ... What to Do? polemically corrected Economism, and it is false to consider the contents of the brochure outside of its connection with this task:

The ideas contained in What to Do?, which should still be read by revolutionists everywhere – and it can be read with the greatest profit – cannot, therefore, be understood without bearing in mind the specific conditions and problems of the Russian movement of the time. That is why Lenin, in answer to a proposal to translate his brochure for the non-Russian parties, told Max Levien in 1921:

“That is not desirable; the translation must at least be issued with good commentaries, which would have to be written by a Russian comrade very well acquainted with the history of the Communist Party of Russia, in order to avoid false application.”

Just as Lenin’s views must be considered against the background of the situation in Russia, so must Luxemburg’s polemic against them be viewed against the background of the situation in Germany. In her famous review in 1904 of Lenin’s One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward (an extension of the views of What to Do?), Luxemburg’s position was decisively colored by the realities of the German movement. Where Lenin stressed ultra-centralism, Luxemburg stressed democracy and organizational flexibility. Where Lenin emphasized the dominant role of the professional revolutionist, Luxemburg countered with emphasis on the mass movement and its elemental upsurge.

Why? Because these various forces played clearly different roles in Russia and in Germany. The “professional revolutionists” whom Luxemburg encountered in Germany were not, as in Russia, the radical instruments for gathering together loose and scattered local organizations, uniting them into one national party imbued with a firm Marxian ideology and freed from the opportunistic conceptions of pure-and-simple trade unionism. Quite the contrary. In Germany, the “professionals” were the careerists, the conservative trade union bureaucrats, the lords of the ossifying party machine, the reformist parliamentarians, the whole crew who finally succeeded in disemboweling the movement. An enormous conservative power, they weighed down like a mountain upon the militant-minded rank and file. They were the canal through which the poison of reformism seeped into the masses. They acted as a brake upon the class actions of the workers and not as a spur. In Russia the movement was loose and ineffectual, based on circles, as Lenin said, “almost always resting upon the personal friendship of a small number of persons”. In Germany, the movement was tightly organized, conservatively disciplined, routinized, and dominated by a semi-reformist, centralist leadership. These concrete circumstances led Luxemburg to the view that only an appeal to the masses, only their elemental militant movement could break through the conservative wall of the party and trade union apparatus. The “centralism” of Lenin forged a party that proved able to lead the Russian masses to a victorious revolution; the “centralism” that Luxemburg saw growing in the German social-democracy became a conservative force and ended in a series of catastrophes for the proletariat. This is what she feared when she wrote against Lenin in 1904:

... the role of the social-democratic leadership becomes one of an essentially conservative character, in that it leads to working out empirically to its ultimate conclusions the new experience acquired in the struggle and soon to converting it into a bulwark against a further innovation in the grand style. The present tactic of the German social-democracy, for example, is generally admired for its remarkable manifoldness, flexibility and at the same time certainty. Such qualities simply mean, however, that our party has adapted itself wonderfully in its daily struggle to the present parliamentary basis, down to the smallest detail, that it knows how to exploit the whole field of battle offered by parliamentarism and to master it in accordance with given principles. At the same time, this specific formulation of tactics already serves so much to conceal the further horizon that one notes a strong inclination to perpetuate that tactic and to regard the parliamentary tactic as the social-democratic tactic for all time.

But it is a far cry from the wisdom of these words, uttered in the specific conditions of Luxemburg’s struggle in Germany, to the attempts made by syndicalists and ultra-leftists of all kinds to read into her views a universal formula of rejection of the idea of leadership and centralization. The fact of the matter is that the opportunistic enemies of Luxemburg, and her closest collaborator, Leo Jogisches (Tyzsko), especially in the Polish movement in which she actively participated, made virtually the same attacks upon her “organizational principles” and “regime of leadership” as were levelled against Lenin. During the war, for example, the Spartakusbund was highly centralized and held tightly in the hands of that peerless organizer, Jogisches. The Social-Democracy of Poland and Lithuania, which she led, was, if anything, far more highly centralized and far more merciless towards those in its ranks who deviated from the party’s line, than was the Bolshevik party under Lenin. In his history of the Russian movement, the Menshevik Theodore Dan, who did not spare Lenin for his “organizational regime”, and sought to exploit Luxemburg’s criticism of Lenin for his own ends, nevertheless wrote that the Polish social-democracy of the time shared in its essentials the organizational principles of Lenin, against which Rosa Luxemburg had polemized at the birth of Bolshevism; it also applied these principles in the practise of its own party, in which a rigid, bureaucratic centralism prevailed and people like Radek, Zalevsky, Unschlicht and others, who later played a leading role in the Communist party, were expelled from the party because of their oppositional stand against the party executive.

“Bureaucratic centralism”, was (and is) the term generally applied by Dan and Mensheviks of all stripes to Lenin and Luxemburg and all others who seriously sought to build up a purposeful party of Proletarian revolution, in contrast to that “democratic” looseness prevalent in the Second International which only served as a cover behind which elements alien to the revolution could make their way to the leadership of the party and, at crucial moments, betray it to the class enemy. The irreconcilable antagonism which the reformists felt towards Lenin and Luxemburg is in sharp and significant contrast to the affinity they now feel towards the Stalinist International, in which full-blooded and genuine bureaucratic centralism has attained its most evil form. It is not difficult to imagine what Rosa Luxemburg would have written about the Stalin regime had she lived in our time; and by the same token it is not difficult to understand the poisonous campaign that the Stalinists have conducted against her for years.

The years of struggle that elapsed since the early polemics in the Russian movement, the experiences that enriched the arsenal of the great revolutionists of the time, and above all the Russian Revolution itself, undoubtedly served to draw the political tendency of Rosa Luxemburg closer to that represented with such genius by Lenin. Had she not been cut down so cruelly in the prime of her intellectual power, there is little doubt in my mind that she would have become one of the greatest figures and champions of the Communist International – not of the horribly twisted caricature that it is today, but as it was in the early years, It does not even occur to me, wrote Karl Kautsky, her bitter foe, in 1921, “to deny that in the course of the war Rosa drew steadily closer 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’”.

The judgment is a correct one and doubly valid because it comes from a political opponent who knew her views so well. It is worth a thousand times more than all the superficial harpings on the theme of the irreconcilability of Marxism’s greatest teachers in our time.


Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 30 July 2015