Leon Trotsky

Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg!

(June 1932)

Written: June 28, 1932.
First Published: The Militant [New York], August 6 and 13, 1932.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Note: This version differs slightly from the version published in The Militant, which can be found here.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2005. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Stalin’s article, Some Questions Concerning the History of Bolshevism, reached me after much delay. After receiving it, for a long time I could not force myself to read it, for such literature sticks in one’s throat like sawdust or mashed bristles. But still, having finally read it, I came to the conclusion that one cannot ignore this performance, if only because there is included in it a vile and barefaced calumny about Rosa Luxemburg. This great revolutionist is enrolled by Stalin into the camp of centrism! He proves – not proves, of course, but asserts – that Bolshevism from the day of its inception held to the line of a split with the Kautsky center, while Rosa Luxemburg during that time sustained Kautsky from the left. I quote his own words: “... long before the war, approximately since 1903–04, when the Bolshevik group in Russia took shape and when the Left in the German Social Democracy first raised their voice, Lenin pursued a line toward a rupture, toward a split with the opportunists both here, in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and over there, in the Second International, particularly in the German Social Democratic Party.” That this, however, could not be achieved was due entirely to the fact that “the Left Social Democrats in the Second International, and above all in the German Social Democratic Party, were a weak and powerless group ... and afraid even to pronounce the word ‘rupture,’ ‘split.’”

To put forward such an assertion, one must be absolutely ignorant of the history of one’s own party, and first of all, of Lenin’s ideological course. There is not a single word of truth in Stalin’s point of departure. In 1903–04, Lenin was, indeed, an irreconcilable foe of opportunism in the German Social Democracy. But he considered as opportunism only the revisionist tendency which was led theoretically by Bernstein.

Kautsky at the time was to be found fighting against Bernstein. Lenin considered Kautsky as his teacher and stressed this everywhere he could. In Lenin’s work of that period and for a number of years following, one does not find even a trace of criticism in principle directed against the Bebel-Kautsky tendency. Instead one finds a series of declarations to the effect that Bolshevism is not some sort of an independent tendency but is only a translation into the language of Russian conditions of the tendency of Bebel-Kautsky. Here is what Lenin wrote in his famous pamphlet, Two Tactics, in the middle of 1905: “When and where did I ever call the revolutionism of Bebel and Kautsky ‘opportunism’? ... When and where have there been brought to light differences between me, on the one hand, and Bebel and Kautsky on the other? ... The complete unanimity of international revolutionary Social Democracy on all major questions of program and tactics is a most incontrovertible fact” [Collected Works, Volume 9, July 1905]. Lenin’s words are so clear, precise, and categorical as to entirely exhaust the question.

A year and a half later, on December 7, 1906, Lenin wrote in the article The Crisis of Menshevism: “... from the beginning we declared (see One Step Forward, Two Steps Back): We are not creating a special ‘Bolshevik’ tendency; always and everywhere we merely uphold the point of view of revolutionary Social Democracy. And right up to the social revolution there will inevitably always be an opportunist wing and a revolutionary wing of Social Democracy” [ibid., Volume 11, December 7, 1906].

Speaking of Menshevism as the opportunistic wing of the Social Democracy, Lenin compared the Mensheviks not with Kautskyism but with revisionism. Moreover he looked upon Bolshevism as the Russian form of Kautskyism, which in his eyes was in that period identical with Marxism. The passage we have just quoted shows, incidentally, that Lenin did not at all stand absolutely for a split with the opportunists; he not only admitted but also considered “inevitable” the existence of the revisionists in the Social Democracy right up to the social revolution.

Two weeks later, on December 20, 1906, Lenin greeted enthusiastically Kautsky’s answer to Plekhanov’s questionnaire on the character of the Russian revolution: “He has fully confirmed our contention that we are defending the position of revolutionary Social Democracy against opportunism, and not creating any ‘peculiar’ Bolshevik tendency ...” [The Proletariat and Its Ally in the Russian Revolution, ibid., Volume 11, December 10, 1906].

Within these limits, I trust, the question is absolutely clear. According to Stalin, Lenin, even from 1903, had demanded a break in Germany with the opportunists, not only of the right wing (Bernstein) but also of the left (Kautsky). Whereas in December 1906, Lenin as we see was proudly pointing out to Plekhanov and the Mensheviks that the tendency of Kautsky in Germany and the tendency of Bolshevism in Russia were – identical. Such is part one of Stalin’s excursion into the ideological history of Bolshevism. Our investigator’s scrupulousness and his knowledge rest on the same plane!

Directly after his assertion regarding 1903–04, Stalin makes a leap to 1916 and refers to Lenin’s sharp criticism of the war pamphlet by Junius, i.e., Rosa Luxemburg. To be sure, in that period Lenin had already declared war to the finish against Kautskyism, having drawn from his criticism all the necessary organizational conclusions. It is not to be denied that Rosa Luxemburg did not pose the question of the struggle against centrism with the requisite completeness – in this Lenin’s position was entirely superior. But between October 1916, when Lenin wrote about the Junius pamphlet, and 1903, when Bolshevism had its inception, there is a lapse of thirteen years; in the course of the major part of this period Rosa Luxemburg was to be found in opposition to the Kautsky and Bebel Central Committee, and her fight against the formal, pedantic, and rotten-at-the-core “radicalism” of Kautsky took on an ever increasingly sharp character.

Lenin did not participate in this fight and did not support Rosa Luxemburg up to 1914. Passionately absorbed in Russian affairs, he preserved extreme caution in international matters. In Lenin’s eyes Bebel and Kautsky stood immeasurably higher as revolutionists than in the eyes of Rosa Luxemburg, who observed them at closer range, in action, and who was much more directly subjected to the atmosphere of German politics.

The capitulation of German Social Democracy on August 4, 1914, was entirely unexpected by Lenin. It is well known that the issue of the Vorwärts with the patriotic declaration of the Social Democratic faction was taken by Lenin to be a forgery by the German general staff. Only after he was absolutely convinced of the awful truth did he subject to revision his evaluation of the basic tendencies of the German Social Democracy, and while so doing he performed that task in the Leninist manner, i.e., he finished it off once for all.

On October 27, 1914, Lenin wrote to A. Shlyapnikov: “I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy ... Rosa Luxemburg was right when she wrote, long ago, that Kautsky has the ‘subservience of a theoretician’ – servility, in plainer language, servility to the majority of the party, to opportunism” (Leninist Anthology, Volume 2, p.200, my emphasis) [ibid., Volume 35, October 27, 1914].

Were there no other documents – and there are hundreds – these few lines alone could unmistakably clarify the history of the question. Lenin deemed it necessary at the end of 1914 to inform one of his colleagues closest to him at the time that “now,” at the present moment, today, in contradistinction to the past, he “hates and despises” Kautsky. The sharpness of the phrase is an unmistakable: indication of the extent to which Kautsky betrayed Lenin’s hopes and expectations. No less vivid is the second phrase, “Rosa Luxemburg was right when she wrote, long ago, that Kautsky has the ‘subservience of a theoretician.’ ...” Lenin hastens here to recognize that “verity” which he did not see formerly, or which, at least, he did not recognize fully on Rosa Luxemburg’s side.

Such are the chief chronological guideposts of the questions, which are at the same time important guideposts of Lenin’s political biography. The fact is indubitable that his ideological orbit is represented by a continually rising curve. But this only means that Lenin was not born Lenin full-fledged, as he is pictured by the slobbering daubers of the “divine,” but that he made himself Lenin. Lenin ever extended his horizons, he learned from others and daily drew himself to a higher plane than was his own yesterday. In this perseverance, in this stubborn resolution of a continual spiritual growth over his own self did his heroic spirit find its expression. If Lenin in 1903 had understood and formulated everything that was required for the coming times, then the remainder of his life would have consisted only of reiterations. In reality this was not at all the case. Stalin simply stamps the Stalinist imprint on Lenin and coins him into the petty small change of numbered adages.

In Rosa Luxemburg’s struggle against Kautsky, especially in 1910–14, an important place was occupied by the questions of war, militarism, and pacifism. Kautsky defended the reformist program: limitations of armaments, international court, etc. Rosa Luxemburg fought decisively against this program as illusory. On this question Lenin was in some doubt, but at a certain period he stood closer to Kautsky than to Rosa Luxemburg. From conversations at the time with Lenin I recall that the following argument of Kautsky made a great impression upon him: just as in domestic questions, reforms are products of the revolutionary class struggle, so in international relationships it is possible to fight for and to gain certain guarantees (“reforms”) by means of the international class struggle. Lenin considered it entirely possible to support this position of Kautsky, provided that he, after the polemic with Rosa Luxemburg, turned upon the right-wingers (Noske and Co.). I do not undertake now to say from memory to what extent this circle of ideas found its expression in Lenin’s articles; the question would require a particularly careful analysis. Neither can I take upon myself to assert from memory how soon Lenin’s doubts on this question were settled. In any case they found their expression not only in conversations but also in correspondence. One of these letters is in the possession of Karl Radek.

I deem it necessary to supply on this question evidence as a witness in order to attempt in this manner to save an exceptionally valuable document for the theoretical biography of Lenin. In the autumn of 1926, at the time of our collective work over the platform of the Left Opposition, Radek showed Kamenev, Zinoviev, and me – probably also other comrades as well – a letter of Lenin to him (1911?) which consisted of a defense of Kautsky’s position against the criticism of the German Lefts. In accordance with the regulation passed by the Central Committee, Radek, like all others, should have delivered this letter to the Lenin Institute. But fearful lest it be hidden, if not destroyed, in the Stalinist factory of fabrications, Radek decided to preserve the letter till some more opportune time. One cannot deny that there was some foundation to Radek’s attitude. At present, however, Radek himself has – though not very responsible – still quite an active part in the work of producing political forgeries. Suffice it to recall that Radek, who in distinction to Stalin is acquainted with the history of Marxism, and who, at any rate, knows this letter of Lenin, found it possible to make a public statement of his solidarity with the insolent evaluation placed by Stalin on Rosa Luxemburg. The circumstance that Radek acted thereupon under Yaroslavsky’s rod does not mitigate his guilt, for only despicable slaves can renounce the principles of Marxism in the name of the principles of the rod.

However the matter we are concerned with relates not to the personal characterization of Radek but to the fate of Lenin’s letter. What happened to it? Is Radek hiding it even now from the Lenin Institute? Hardly. Most probably, he entrusted it, where it should be entrusted, as a tangible proof of an intangible devotion. And what lay in store for the letter thereafter? Is it preserved in Stalin’s personal archives alongside with the documents that compromise his closest colleagues? Or is it destroyed as many other most precious documents of the party’s past have been destroyed?

In any case there cannot be even the shadow of a political reason for the concealment of a letter written two decades ago on a question that holds now only a historical interest. But it is precisely the historical value of the letter that is exceptionally great. It shows Lenin as he really was, and not as he is being re-created in their own semblance and image by the bureaucratic dunderheads, who pretend to infallibility. We ask, where is Lenin’s letter to Radek? Lenin’s letter must be where it belongs! Put it on the table of the party and of the Comintern!

If one were to take the disagreements between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg in their entirety, then historical correctness is unconditionally on Lenin’s side. But this does not exclude the fact that on certain questions and during definite periods Rosa Luxemburg was correct as against Lenin. In any case, the disagreements, despite their importance and at times their extreme sharpness, developed on the basis of revolutionary proletarian policies common to them both.

When Lenin, going back into the past, wrote in October 1919 (Greetings to Italian, French, and German Communists) that “... at the moment of taking power and establishing the Soviet republic, Bolshevism was united; it drew to itself all that was best in the tendencies of socialist thought akin to it ...” [ibid., Volume 30, October 10, 1919], I repeat, when Lenin wrote this he unquestionably had in mind also the tendency of Rosa Luxemburg, whose closest adherents, e.g., Marchlewsky, Dzerzhinsky, and others went working in the ranks of the Bolsheviks.

Lenin understood Rosa Luxemburg’s mistakes more profoundly than Stalin; but it was not accidental that Lenin once quoted the old couplet in relation to Luxemburg:

Although the eagles do swoop down and beneath the chickens fly,
chickens with outspread wings never will soar amid clouds in the sky.

Precisely the case! Precisely the point! For this very reason Stalin should proceed with caution before employing his vicious mediocrity when the matter touches figures of such status as Rosa Luxemburg.

In his article A Contribution to the History of the Question of the Dictatorship (October 1920), Lenin, touching upon questions of the Soviet state and the dictatorship of the proletariat already posed by the 1905 revolution, wrote: “While such outstanding representatives of the revolutionary proletariat and of unfalsified Marxism as Rosa Luxemburg immediately realized the significance of this practical experience and made a critical analysis of it at meetings and in the press,” on the contrary, “... people of the type of the future ‘Kautskyites’ ... proved absolutely incapable of grasping the significance of this experience ...” [ibid., Volume 31, October 20, 1920]. In a few lines, Lenin fully pays the tribute of recognition to the historical significance of Rosa Luxemburg’s struggle against Kautsky – a struggle which Lenin himself had been far from immediately evaluating at its true worth. If to Stalin, the ally of Chiang Kai-shek, and the comrade-in-arms of Purcell, the theoretician of “the worker-peasant party,” of “the democratic dictatorship,” of “non-antagonizing the bourgeoisie,” etc. – if to him Rosa Luxemburg is the representative of centrism, to Lenin she is the representative of “unfalsified Marxism.” What this designation meant coming as it does from Lenin’s pen is clear to anyone who is even slightly acquainted with Lenin.

I take the occasion to point out here that in the notes to Lenin’s works there is among others the following said about Rosa Luxemburg: “During the florescence of Bernsteinian revisionism and later of ministerialism (Millerand), Luxemburg carried on against this tendency a decisive fight, taking her position in the left wing of the German party.... In 1907 she participated as a delegate of the SD of Poland and Lithuania in the London congress of the RSDLP, supporting the Bolshevik faction on all basic questions of the Russian revolution. From 1907, Luxemburg gave herself over entirely to work in Germany, taking a left-radical position and carrying on a fight against the center and the right wing ... Her participation in the January 1919 insurrection has made her name the banner of the proletarian revolution.”

Of course the author of these notes will in all probability tomorrow confess his sins and announce that in Lenin’s epoch he wrote in a benighted condition, and that he reached complete enlightenment only in the epoch of Stalin. At the present moment announcements of this sort – combinations of sycophancy, idiocy, and buffoonery – are made daily in the Moscow press. But they do not change the nature of things: What’s once set down in black and white, no ax will hack nor all your might. Yes, Rosa Luxemburg has become the banner of the proletarian revolution!

How and wherefore, however, did Stalin suddenly busy himself – at so belated a time – with the revision of the old Bolshevik evaluation of Rosa Luxemburg? As was the case with all his preceding theoretical abortions so with this latest one, and the most scandalous, the origin lies in the logic of his struggle against the theory of permanent revolution. In this “historical” article, Stalin once again allots the chief place to this theory. There is not a single new word in what he says. I have long ago answered all his arguments in my book The Permanent Revolution. From the historical viewpoint the question will be sufficiently clarified, I trust, in the second volume of The History of the Russian Revolution (The October Revolution), now on the press. In the present case the question of the permanent revolution concerns us only insofar as Stalin links it up with Rosa Luxemburg’s name. We shall presently see how the hapless theoretician has contrived to set up a murderous trap for himself.

After recapitulating the controversy between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks on the question of the motive forces of the Russian revolution and after masterfully compressing a series of mistakes into a few lines, which I am compelled to leave without an examination, Stalin writes: “What was the attitude of the German Left Social Democrats, of Parvus and Rosa Luxemburg, to this controversy? They invented a utopian and semi-Menshevik scheme of permanent revolution ... Subsequently, this semi-Menshevik scheme of permanent revolution was seized upon by Trotsky (in part by Martov) and turned into a weapon of struggle against Leninism.” Such is the unexpected history of the origin of the theory of the permanent revolution, in accordance with the latest historical researches of Stalin. But, alas, the investigator forgot to consult his own previous learned works. In 1925 this same Stalin had already expressed himself on this question in his polemic against Radek. Here is what he wrote then: “It is not true that the theory of the permanent revolution ... was put forward in 1905 by Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky. As a matter of fact this theory was put forward by Parvus and Trotsky.” This assertion may be consulted on page 185, Problems of Leninism, Russian edition, 1926. Let us hope that it obtains in all foreign editions.

So, in 1925, Stalin pronounced Rosa Luxemburg not guilty in the commission of such a cardinal sin as participating in the creation of the theory of the permanent revolution. “As a matter of fact, this theory was put forward by Parvus and Trotsky.” In 1931, we are informed by the identical Stalin that it was precisely “Parvus and Rosa Luxemburg ... who invented a Utopian and semi-Menshevik scheme of permanent revolution.” As for Trotsky he was innocent of creating the theory, it was only “seized upon” by him, and at the same time by ... Martov! Once again Stalin is caught with the goods. Perhaps he writes on questions of which he can make neither head nor tail. Or is he consciously shuffling marked cards in playing with the basic questions of Marxism? It is incorrect to pose this question as an alternative. As a matter of fact, both the one and the other are true. The Stalinist falsifications are conscious insofar as they are dictated at each given moment by entirely concrete personal interests. At the same time they are semi-conscious, insofar as his congenital ignorance places no impediments whatsoever to his theoretical propensities.

But facts remain facts. In his war against “the Trotskyist contraband,” Stalin has fallen foul of a new personal enemy, Rosa Luxemburg! He did not pause for a moment before lying about her and vilifying her; and moreover, before proceeding to put into circulation his giant doses of vulgarity and disloyalty, he did not even take the trouble of verifying what he himself had said on the same subject six years before.

The new variant of the history of the ideas of the permanent revolution was indicated first of all by an urge to provide a dish more spicy than all those preceding. It is needless to explain that Martov was dragged in by the hair for the sake of the greater piquancy of theoretical and historical cookery. Martov’s attitude to the theory and practice of the permanent revolution was one of unalterable antagonism, and in the old days he stressed more than once that Trotsky’s views on revolution were rejected equally by the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. But it is not worthwhile to pause over this.

What is truly fatal is that there is not a single major question of the international proletarian revolution on which Stalin has failed to express two directly contradictory opinions. We all know that in April 1924, he conclusively demonstrated in Problems of Leninism the impossibility of building socialism in one country. In autumn, in a new edition of the book, he substituted in its place a proof – i.e., a bald proclamation – that the proletariat “can and must” build socialism in one country. The entire remainder of the text was left unchanged. On the question of the worker-peasant party, of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, the leadership of the October Revolution, on the national question, etc., etc., Stalin contrived to put forward, for a period of a few years, sometimes of a few months, opinions that were mutually exclusive. It would be incorrect to place the blame in everything on a poor memory. The matter reaches deeper here. Stalin completely lacks any method of scientific thinking, he has no criteria of principles. He approaches every question as if that question were born only today and stood apart from all other questions. Stalin contributes his judgments entirely depending upon whatever personal interest of his is uppermost and most urgent today. The contradictions that convict him are the direct vengeance for his vulgar empiricism. Rosa Luxemburg does not appear to him in the perspective of the German, Polish, and international workers’ movement of the last half-century. No, she is to him each time a new, and, besides, an isolated figure, regarding whom he is compelled in every new situation to ask himself anew, “Who goes there, friend or foe?” Unerring instinct has this time whispered to the theoretician of socialism in one country that the shade of Rosa Luxemburg is irreconcilably inimical to him. But this does not hinder the great shade from remaining the banner of the international proletarian revolution.

Rosa Luxemburg criticized very severely and fundamentally incorrectly the policies of the Bolsheviks in 1918 from her prison cell. But even in this, her most erroneous work, her eagle’s wings are to be seen. Here is her general evaluation of the October insurrection: “Everything that a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness, and consistency in a historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky, and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which the Social Democracy of the West lacked were represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.” Can this be the voice of centrism?

In the succeeding pages, Luxemburg subjects to severe criticism the policies of the Bolsheviks in the agrarian in the agrarian sphere, their slogan of national self-determination, and their rejection of formal democracy. In this criticism we might add, directed equally against Lenin and Trotsky, she makes no distinction whatever between their views; and Rosa Luxemburg knew how to read, understand, and seize upon shadings. It did not even fall into her head, for instance, to accuse me fact of the fact that by being in solidarity with Lenin on the agrarian question, I had changed my views on the peasantry. And moreover she knew these views very well since I had developed them in detail in 1909 in her Polish journal. Rosa Luxemburg ends her criticism with the demand, “in the policy of the Bolsheviks the essential must be distinguished from the unessential, the fundamental from the accidental.” The fundamental she considers to be the force of the action of the masses, the will to socialism. “In this,” she writes, “Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hütten, ‘I have dared!’”

Yes, Stalin has sufficient cause to hate Rosa Luxemburg. But all the more imperious therefore becomes our duty to shield Rosa’s memory from Stalin’s calumny that has been caught by the hired functionaries of both hemispheres, and to pass on this truly beautiful, heroic, and tragic image to the young generations of the proletariat in all its grandeur and inspirational force.

return return return return return

Last updated on: 1.1.2014