August Thalheimer

Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin

Taken from: What Next? No.7
Translated by: Mike Jones with assistance from Theodor Bergmann and some additional tinkering by the editor.
HTML Markup: Mathias Bismo

Introduction by Mike Jones

The article below was first published in the 3 January 1930 issue of Gegen den Strom, It was apparently written both to mark the celebration of the 'Three Ls' (Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht') on 15 January 1930 and also to counter crude attacks on Luxemburg by those leaders of the German Communist Party (KPD) who were undertaking the final Stalinisation of the party in the aftermath of the adoption of the Comintern's ultra-left 'new line'. By then many of Luxemburg's associates, who had founded and built up the party, had been expelled and were organised in the KPD (Opposition), whose theoretical weekly Gegen den Strom was. The Luxemburg tradition had come under attack earlier, under the Ruth Fischer-Arkadi Maslow leadership, allies of Zinoviev, who began the so-called 'Bolshevisation' of the KPD, uprooting the native democratic structures and adopting one resulting from the Russian experience - almost destroying the party in the process, because of the linked sectarian politics. Luxemburg, Trotsky and Brandler1) were all compared and denounced as 'semi-Mensheviks', etc.

Walter Held's essay in the last What Next? would seem to stem from that tradition that thought the Bolsheviks had found all the answers. I see that outlook as ahistorical. As August Thalheimer points out, it was not a result of an 'error' that Rosa Luxernburg opposed centralism in Germany, but because of the level of capitalist development, the level of class struggle, and the corresponding forms of the labour movement thrown up by the workers themselves. In Russia and Poland, the level of capitalist development and of the class struggle, and the need for secrecy, all meant that the nascent movement was dominated by the intellectuals, with only a few advanced workers prepared to follow them. The organisations they set up were by nature of the Blanquist type. The 1903 dispute over the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party statutes reflects that.

The organisational form adopted by the workers' organisations expressed the needs of the distinct stage of development. In Germany, Rosa Luxemburg fought the centralism of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). as this was allowing the party to move away from the advanced workers and into class collaboration. For her, the workers' party, rust be able to respond to the creative deeds of the revolutionary workers, to integrate into its arsenal their new conceptions, and to theorise such novel creations. The top-down centralised party cannot respond to such creative acts. It operates according to schemas drafted by all-powerful Central Committees. Witness the Bolshevik response to the 1905 events.

In accordance with her analysis of capitalist development - as set out in her The Accumulation of Capital - Rosa Luxemburg assumed that, as capitalism developed, its contradictions sharpened. The class struggle would increase accordingly and the working class would gradually radicalise, resulting in the SPI) shedding the petty bourgeois element and becoming the pure workers' party required, as the radicalised workers began to determine its policy and tactics. For her, it was not the party that brought revolutionary consciousness to the working class, but the workers, becoming conscious through the actual struggles they undertook, who then brought their conceptions into the party. The party then reworks these discoveries into its programme and theory. Luxemburg saw the role of the party as that of raising the existing consciousness of the class, not as arriving from outside and imposing ready-made schemas.

For example, the 'Open Letter' of January 1921, where the KPI) advanced demands around which a United Front could materialise, came from the Stuttgart Demands, put forward by KPI) metalworkers in that area; and they, in turn, originated in a discussion of the Württemberg District Conunittee of the KPD, at which Brandler and Walcher were present.2) The point being that Württemberg had been a stronghold of Spartakus, key KPD leaders came from there, and a layer of workers existed who had been schooled in Luxemburg's understanding of Marxism. Hence the demands came not from the top down, but from that reciprocal relationship between the party and class.

Luxernburg's struggle, waged over the years within the SPD, meant that she understood that reformism and centrism had deep material roots, that the removal of a few leaders was no solution, that these historical leaders had a following, even if, to a degree, this was based on illusions. No, the 4 August events resulted from a long historical process. Therefore she opposed any break from the SPD until no more could be done (and she was correct to oppose Lenin at Zimmerwald - as was Trotsky), as a small group of intellectuals and a tiny sector of advanced workers would have only separated themselves from the organised workers' movement by a split, and made difficult the task of influencing those same workers, by participating in and influencing the process whereby they became aware of the need either to take over the old party or to found a new one. For Luxemburg, as for Marx, the emergence of the party does not result from the will of the intellectuals but from the conscious decision of the working class, out of a stage in its development, and out of the class struggle itself. Everything else is sect-building,

Hence it was no 'error' of Luxemburg to have neglected to split long before. August Thalheimer's phrase 'schoolboy notion' sums up such a view. That view is still current in some of the sects today. Another one, just as erroneous, is that she should have created a 'hard faction' in the SPD. To what end? As long as Luxemburg and her comrades had freedom of speech, could operate freely, could not only publish in but even edit local newspapers, could run local and district SPI) organisations, in other words have normal rights as party members - then why set up secret groupings? A current of opinion suffices in such circumstances. Secret groups can only alienate other comrades and cut oneself off from influencing them.

Years later, looking back, Thalheimer wrote: 'Still in 1914-15, we did not exclude the possibility of being able to still raise the flag of revolution within the Social Democracy and cleansing it of opportunist elements. Only gradually did we become convinced that within this old framework there was nothing more to expect, nothing more to gain. One must be clear, however, that inside the Social Democratic Party the severe factional struggles between the Lassalleans and Eisenachers were still fixed in the memory, the idea of a split met with the most difficult obstructions and the most grave hesitations among even the most progressive workers.’3)

In Chapter 5 of his Rosa Luxemburg biography, Paul Frö1ich evaluates our two protagonists, and although he has been accused of smoothing out the differences, it seem to me that, within the framework of the task he was set, he does face up to them. On the original argument over the type of party (1904), Frölich says that Luxemburg 'observed in him [Lenin] a dangerous rigidity in argumentation, a certain scholasticism in his political ideas, and a tendency to ignore the living movement of the masses, or even to coerce it into accepting preconceived tactical plans'.4) But he goes on to say: 'In any case, when big decisions had to be taken, he demonstrated a tactical elasticity which one would not have suspected from his writings. His associates, however, manifested that conservative inertia, as decried by Rosa Luxemburg.5) Summing up that first difference, Frölich concludes that: 'Luxemburg underestimated the power of organisation, particularly when the reins of leadership were in the hands of her opponents. She relied all too believingly on the pressure of the revolutionary masses to make any correction in party policy. Lenin's total political view prior to 1917 shows traces of unmistakeably Blanquist influences and an exaggerated voluntarism, though he quickly overcame it when faced with concrete situations ... it can be said that Rosa concerned herself more with the historical process as a whole and derived her political decisions from it, while Lenin's eye was more concentrated on the final aim and sought the means to bring it about. For her the decisive element was the mass., for him it was the party, which he wanted to forge into the spearhead of the whole movement.'6)

Frölich looks at Luxernburg's approach to the party during the war in Chapter 11, and adequately outlines her reasoning. In Chapter 12, he does the came regarding her attitude in 1917 and the deeds of the Bolsheviks. Thalheimer does not deal with the questions of democracy or the terror, so I'll restrict myself to a few comments only. In her unfinished brochure on the Russian Revolution, Luxemburg spoke up for 'the dictatorship of the class, not of a party or of a clique'. She also criticised the Bolsheviks justifying the measures they took, and even theoretising them, when they went counter to the Marxist programme. If we know that these measures were adopted ad hoc because of civil war and counter-revolution, we also know today where they led. Such measures became part and parcel of what passed for Communist theory. It seems to me that Luxemburg was correct here.

In a number of quotes from Luxemburg's brochure, Frölich sums up how she saw the role of the masses, as opposed to Lenin-Trotsky, and she wrote that: 'Socialist practice demands a total spiritual transformation in the masses ('ganze geistige Umwälzung' - the untranslatable 'geistige' can also mean 'mental', 'intellectual', etc.), and to me that sums up Luxemburg. For her the downtrodden masses had become conscious of the need to take power and emancipate themselves; that a party based on Marxism was pushing them aside and saying 'leave things to us' was incomprehensible. For me she represents more the Marxism of Marx, while Lenin (Trotsky became a Bolshevik and rejected his old criticism) has strong Blanquist traits that surely originate in the Russian populist tradition. A serious debate on these old arguments is welcome, and here I agree with Thalheimer, that one should reject the either/or, thereby constructing false poles, but approach the matters historically, and today with the benefit of much hindsight.


1) KPD leader Heinrich Brandler was scapegoated by the Comintern for the failure of the 'German October' in 1923. He and Thalheimer later became co-leaders of the KPD-Opposition. (Editorial note.) 2. K.H.Tjaden, Sruktur und Funktion der KPD.

2) Opposilion (KPO), 1964, V61.2, pp.90-1, note 1. Hans Tittel, at that time Political Secretary of the Wdrttemberg District, told Tjaden years later how the Stuttgart Demands came about. (Jakob Walcher was another future leader of the KPD-Opposition: editorial note.)

3) A.Thalheimer, 'Spartakus und die Wettkrieg', Inprekorr, No.83, 8 July 1924, cited by J.Kaestner, Die polilische Theorie August Thalheimers, 1982, p29,

4) P.Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg, 1972, p.85

5) Ibid., p.86.

6) Ibid., pp.88-9,

Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin?

August Thalheimer

0n the 15 January, the revolutionary working class in Germany celebrates simultaneously Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Lenin. In the imagination and the sentiment of the German revolutionary worker they stand on the same level, as the hitherto greatest champions of the proletarian revolution. Each of them with their own traits, their own achievements, their own revolutionary character, their own role. The name of Lenin shines in the clear lustre of the victor of the first proletarian revolution and its convulsive and infectious impact worldwide. The names of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht are surrounded by the gloomy lustre of the leaders of a revolution that was crushed in its first assault, of the martyrs of the revolutionary struggle, of the most outstandmig symbols of the arduous path of martyrdom and suffering, but also of the unbending fighting spirit of the German working class. If the former personifies the victorious present and true reality of the proletarian revolution, then the latter personify its future, its hope, its intention to break through to the advanced capitalist west. All three are equally dear to the hearts of the revolutionary working class.

Only the minor and ambitious fellows today at work on the shoulders of these giants, in dull ignorance, m order to misrepresent, to pervert and demolish what the others built up, now reserve the right to put the question: 'Luxemburg or Lenin?' And they decide it so: Rosa Luxemburg became stuck on the way to Bolshevism (the name Communism is apparently no longer sufficient), at centrism or semi-centrism, so to speak, that she was a - fortunately outmoded - stage towards the height to which these fellows have raised themselves.

It would, however, be just as wrong to counter-pose to this mistake the opposite one, that 'Luxemburgism' is the superior revolutionary doctrine to Leninism.

Not Luxemburg or Lenin - but Luxemburg and Lenin. Here it is not a question of an obscure mixture and obliteration of differences, but of recognising the particular role and significance of each of them for the proletarian revolution. Each of them gave the proletarian revolution something the other did not, and could not, give. The reasons can be found in the different historical role of the revolutionary movements in which they were, above all, rooted and which they, above all, influenced.

Firstly, we take the general conception of the proletarian revolution. Out of genuine revolutionary Marxism, both Rosa Luxemburg and also Lenin rescued the general conception of the proletarian dictatorship and the role of revolutionary violence within it. Rosa Luxemburg championed this conception first in the West not only against the revisionism of Bernstein, but also against Kautsky, against the 'Marxist Centre' - obviously so named because it tore the revolutionary centre from the Marxist conception of the proletarian revolution, by dispelling the proletarian dictatorship and limiting the revolutionary struggle to the democratic-parliamentary-trade union struggle.

The essence of the Marxist Centre, of Kautskyism, took shape in the years in which the struggle of the proletariat for power was felt to be approaching, and it implied that what was only a certain period in the struggle of the German and Western proletariat, the parliamentary and trade union struggle for reforms, was an absolute, the one and only way. Kautskyist thought faltered before the dialectical transformation of the method of struggle for reform into that of the immediate revolutionary struggle. For the whole of Marxism it substituted the fragment, which parliamentary-trade unionist struggle of the German social democracy during the years 1870-1914 embodied. Consequently, when history really posed the question of the proletarian revolution during the imperialist world war, Kautskyism sank back into social -pacifism and vulgar democracy, and vulgar democracy turned into naked counterrevolution.

Bernstein and Kautsky, the 'Siamese Twins', the poles of the same vulgar democratic and semi-Marxist narrow-mindedness, today logically find themselves together again on the basis of the same conception.

In opposition to them, Rosa Luxemburg rescued the whole, and thereby the true, conception of Marxism, due to the fact that she saw far beyond the German and Western European sector of the proletarian struggle and therefore also in time beyond the purely parliamentary and purely trade union period.

However, she was no more able than Marx and Engels, or anyone else however ingenious, to anticipate out of the depths of the mind, discoveries and creations which only the struggle of the proletarian masses itself was able to accomplish. Bureaucrats of the revolution may imagine that they can replace the creative power of the historical process of the revolution (yet in reality it only results in powerless caricatures). As long as the proletarian revolution had not assumed a real form anywhere, the conception of the proletarian revolution could not go beyond the degree of precision conceived by Marx and Engels from out of the French Commune, i.e. it had to remain standing at a still very general and abstract conception.

An important and decisive step beyond that was first taken by the revolutionary Marxist leader of the working class who stood closest to the Russian revolution of 1905-6 and therefore knew how to fully evaluate its results theoretically. This role fell to Lenin. From the 1905-6 revolution he conceived the idea of the significance of the councils as the embryo of proletarian state power and in connection with the 1917 revolution as the concrete _fundamental form of the state of the proletarian dictatorship.

The true creator of this form is the revolutionary working class itself. Lenin's epoch-making accomplishment consists in recognising the general significance and historical importance of this form faster, more sharply and more profoundly than anyone else, and in having drawn practical-revolutionary conclusions from this perception.

Following a different direction, Lenin concretised the conception, and with that also the plan and strategy, of the proletarian revolution: with regard to the relation between the proletarian, the agrarian-peasant and the national revolution. The powerful experimental field of three Russian revolutions also produced the illustrative material for that. (In Trotsky's description, in his 'An Attempt at an Autobiography', all that remains in semi-darkness, which might be agreeable for him, but is harmful for historical knowledge.)

As soon as the German revolution approached in 1918, Rosa Luxeinburg and Karl Lieblenecht, Franz Mehring, Leo Jogiches, and those united with them in the Spartakusbund, at once accepted this conception as their standpoint, and they knew how to use it with complete independence, in a country with substantially different class relations. In a country where the working class did not constitute a small minority of the population as in Russia, but the majority. Where the anti-feudal agrarian revolution had already been completed. Where capitalism had attained its highest level of development. Where the working class had for decades been used to broad mass organisations, etc.

Neither 'centrists' nor 'semi-centrists', not even mere pupils, not to mention bureaucratic subordinates of a bureaucratic supreme authority of the proletarian revolution, were capable of that task; only independent revolutionary brains could accomplish it. The outcome of these achievements, which continue the work of the Russian revolution on German ground, is the Spartakus Programme, is the Rote Fahne up to the deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

In the bureaucratic regions of the KPD it has become customary to attribute to a subjective 'error' on Rosa Luxemburg's part, that in November 1918 the Spartakusbund was not yet a strong mass party but only a numerically weak tendency in transition to wards a party. According to this conception, she already 'failed' to 'split' in 1914 or 1915, or even as early as 1903. This schoolboy notion fails to grasp that the conditions for the building of a revolutionary party out of an already existing mass party, which assembles within it the most progressive elements of the working class, are different from those where such a mass party and mass organisations do not yet exist, but where the task is to build the revolutionary core to which the unorganised proletarian masses then adhere. That was, however, the different situation in Russia.

Regarding the national question, Rosa Luxemburg's consistent struggle in Poland against petty bourgeois nationalism remains a merit not disputed by Lenin. Her theoretical generalisation was mistaken. Lenin correctly accomplished it out of the great Russian experience.

Regarding the agrarian question, too, the different conceptions can be wholly explained by the different conditions. Where feudal or semi-feudal agrarian relations in the countryside still have to be overcome, as in Russia, but also in a series of other countries, the transitional stage in which the generalisation and levelling of the individual peasant holdings is unavoidable. However, on the other hand, the later Russian experience shows that the construction of socialist industry came very quickly into intolerable contradiction with the continued existence of the individual peasant holding, and that socialist industry must be supplemented by large-scale socialist enterprise on the land. Yet it goes without saying that from this general necessity it does not follow that this step can be made at any moment but that certain real preconditions must met. Trotsky erred in this question by ignoring these real preconditions. He erred moreover by not understanding that this transition could only be carried out not against but only together with the great majority of the small and the middle peasants. If it is correct that the transitional stage of the poor peasantry in Russia could not be skipped over, then it is just as true that under different conditions the aim of the large socialist agricultural enterprise can be attained in other shortened stages and in part by other means.

In the proletarian revolution too, indeed quite particularly in it, the historical dialectic makes itself felt, in that the very same method causes transformations in opposite directions depending on the different preconditions and that for the same purposes under different circumstances occasionally contrary means and methods are called for.

Some questions of the revolutionary organisation may serve as an example. In Russia, Lenin posed the question of the strictest revolutionary centralisation at first against the Mensheviks, in a situation where it was a matter of clearly distinguishing between the elements of the proletarian and the bourgeois revolution. The loose form of revolutionary organisation favoured by the Mensheviks was the organisational expression of the dominance of bourgeois-revolutionary intellectual elements, whereas strictest centralisation was the organisational expression of the proletarian revolutionary class character of the movement.

How different to Germany before the war! The sharpest form of organisational centralisation here was represented by the party bureaucracy, more or less corroded by opportunism. The rule of the opportunist tendency expressed itself organisationally by the domination of a strictly centralist, opportunist party apparatus. Against that the task was to appeal to the revolutionary self-activity of the members. In Russia the principle of strict centralisation was bound up with the proletarian-revolutionary tendency, while it was the opposite in Germany, where this was the principle of the opportunist-petty-bourgeois-bureaucratic tendency. The same formal organisational principle in fact combined contradictory contents regarding both the direction and, in the last analysis, class objectives. In Germany, therefore, the first task was to attack the opportunist-reformist-parliamentary centralism, to smash it, in order to create the preconditions for revolutionary centralisation. A classical dialectical course of development: from the opportunist centralisation through its abolition to the revolutionary centralisation.

However, revolutionary centralisation, too, in its turn undergoes anew a dialectical course of development.

That is shown most tangibly in the question of the 'professional revolutionary'. The 'professional revolutionary' is a necessary product and tool of the leadership of the revolutionary organisation that is illegal and is not yet a mass organisation. In the legal Communist mass organisation there is no place for the 'professional revolutionary' in this sense. Here, as the movement grows, the 'professional revolutionary' too easily changes into the characterless, politically and materially corrupt careerist bureaucrat, for whom the revolutionary movement is a source of a living, of a career, of parliamentary and other posts.

Out of revolutionary centralism the danger of bureaucratic centralism develops anew, on a higher plane, and becomes a hindrance, a fetter on the movement, and against it one must appeal to the revolutionary self-activity of the party ranks. Is this danger present today in the Communist International and its sections? Undoubtedly! Consequently, however, in this question today, too, it is not a matter of Lenin or Luxemburg, but Lenin and Luxemburg. This means that upholding the Leninist principle of revolutionary centralisation today demands a struggle against the bureaucratic, opportunist or ultra-left degeneration of into bureaucratic centralism demands an appeal to the revolutionary self-activity of the membership of the Communist Party in the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg. In this struggle, however, we can also refer to Lenin, who began the struggle against party and state bureaucratism in the victorious Soviet state. These are only some examples for a general lesson that is still suitable for a variety of practical applications.

The party bureaucracy perceives Lenin and Luxemburg as opposed to each other and thereby proves that it has not understood either. We counter-pose to the bureaucracy not only the formal but also the spiritual bond of these two great revolutionary champions of the working class and their closest comrades in arms, their mutual supplementary features as revolutionary leaders, as practicians and theoreticians. What unites them, is that they used the very same principle on different levels, situations and spheres of the great totality of the world revolution.

This whole also transcends the greatest individuals. The individual greatness of revolutionary leaders is also subject to the law of the dialectic: it exists only as much as it is not just an individual, but a general thing, as it participates in the greatness of the cause of the proletarian revolution. Where an attempt is made to bring it into play counter to, or independent from it, then the greatest individual talents and gifts shrivel up to a veritable zero, as shown by manifest examples.