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The New International, February 1943

Reva Craine

Politics and Rosa Luxemburg

A Critical Review of Frölich’s Biography


From New International, Vol. IX No. 2, February 1943, pp. 48–52.
Transcribed and Marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.


Hundreds of articles and biographical sketches have been written about the most gifted of all the women revolutionists and one of the truly great leaders of the international proletarian struggle for socialism. Her writings and contributions have been the subject of innumerable controversies in the labor movement. Some have praised them highly; others have discounted them as minor and insignificant. She has been defended, on the one hand, by “followers” with little understanding of her theories in order that they may attack the “orthodox, rigid and outlived” principles of Marxism; she has also been attacked and proscribed by others in the name of “Leninism.” Only on a rare occasion has an article appeared which attempted to present some of her ideas within the scope of the historical conditions under which she lived and worked. For the most part her writings have remained untranslated from their original language and are therefore unavailable to great sections of the world labor movement.

Such a state of affairs alone would make the appearance in English of Paul Frölich’s Rosa Luxemburg [1] most welcome, were it not tor the fact that the man who was the chief editor of her collected works and who had the opportunity of studying her writings and learning her methods through years of intimate collaboration, has produced a book which does not do justice to his subject. It leaves one with the feeling that the book’s sole virtue rests in the fact that it is the only full-length biography of Rosa Luxemburg available to us. The reader is not given the “feel” of the movement in which Luxemburg functioned, as is the case, for example, in Mehring’s biography of Marx. This in itself might not be too serious, but the lack of historic setting makes it virtually impossible to get a clear understanding of a number of her ideas and it leaves Frölich explaining some of her opinions on very superficial grounds. This is especially, true of those sections of the book which deal with the disputes she had with her contemporaries, most particularly with Lenin.

Throughout the book Frölich seems to suffer from an ailment which is common to centrists – he cannot decide or offer definite opinions on issues in dispute. Instead he resorts to the “on the one hand, and on the other” method which superficially appears to be very objective. Torn from their historic context, principled differences are reduced to matters of political expediency, and differences in approach and emphasis are turned into principled differences. In this review we shall deal with two such instances, not merely as illustrations, but because they happen also to involve questions which are still alive today and problems which remain as yet incompletely solved.

Among Luxemburg’s great contributions was her struggle against the revision of Marxism, both on the part of the reformists and the centrist, Kautsky. Her brilliant defense of the validity of Marxian theory at a time when a triumphant capitalism Seemed to refute many of the developments Marx had foreseen is a tribute to her theoretical abilities. Her recognition of Kautsky’s weaknesses and her break with him at a time when even Lenin was defending him reveals once again her fine political perceptibility. This phase of her achievements, however, like many others, is treated very sketchily by Frölich.

On the Role of Accumulation

Luxemburg was not merely a defender of what Marx had already put down in writing; she studied and knew Marx, but she also extended his theories and made a number of very positive contributions of her own. The most important of these is contained in her book, Accumulation of Capital. On the basis of Marx’s formulations on accumulation and extended reproduction, she demonstrates that expansion, without which capitalism cannot exist, proceeds by a vast extension of the world market through penetration into and exploitation of non-capitalist areas. This process of development she divides into three phases: the struggle of capitalism against primitive self-sufficing society, the struggle against simple commodity production and, finally, the fierce rivalry of world capitalism for the last vestiges of foreign markets – the last chance of accumulation.

By extending its market into non-capitalist areas, it not only finds customers, but an arena for the export and investment of capital and the setting up of capitalist production. At first, capitalist competitors struggle with each other for the possession of these areas, and when the last of these have been seized, they fight for a redivision. With this, Luxemburg proved the inevitability of imperialism and wars in a capitalist world. At the same time she showed that imperialism is no solution to the contradictions of capitalism, but rather brings about their intensification.

On the basis of her theory, Luxemburg proved the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism, that it cannot emerge from its contradictions and continue limitless expansion. She therefore put socialism on a more scientific footing, stripping it of its last shreds of utopianism. However, she did not believe, as her critics have tried to impute to her, that the collapse of capitalism would be automatic and mechanical and that the working class could just sit back and wait for this to happen. She counted on the active intervention of the proletariat and believed that the international revolution would come long before capitalism had a chance to run its full course. For she wrote:

Imperialism is simultaneously a way of prolonging the life of capital-ism and a way of very effectually limiting it. Naturally, this does not mean that the final limits will be reached inevitably and mechanically; however, the tendency toward these final limits is making itself felt already in a way which indicates that the final phase of capitalism will be a period of catastrophes.

And further:

The more violently capitalism liquidates the non-capitalist strata at home and abroad, and depresses the standards of living of all working people, the more the day-to-day history of international accumulation develops into a never-ending chain of political and social catastrophes and convulsions, which, taken together with periodically recurring economic upheavals in the shape of crises, will render the continuation of capital accumulation impossible, and make the rebellion of the international working class against capitalist dominance necessary even before capital-ism has reached the natural self-created limits of its economic possibilities.

Frölich presents the basic concepts contained in Accumulation but there is no step by step development of Luxemburg’s ideas which would have been particularly valuable to English readers, since, Accumulation has not been translated.

It is dealing with the critics of Accumulation that Frölich falls down completely. For example, on two occasions he points out that she made a number of errors which were uncovered by Bucharin, and he even states that if these objections were granted, her theories need modification, without, however stating what these “errors” were or what modification is needed. In the German edition of this biography, Frölich states one of Bucharin’s criticisms, but in the present edition there is only a reference to it without specification. In the earlier edition Frölich agreed with Bucharin. It is not indicated whether he changed his mind between the two editions, or whether he did not think the matter worth going into.

Luxemburg’s work was not limited to literary efforts. Like all great revolutionists, she was a theorist and an activist. Together with Lenin and Trotsky she was one of the few who remained unshakeably loyal to the internationalist principles of socialism during the war, although she did not see eye to eye with Lenin on the formulations which would translate her opposition to the war into slogans of action. Her name is thus indissolubly linked with the founding of Spartacus and the subsequent organization of the German Communist Party.

The German Events

Little is actually known, in this country at least, about the Spartacus uprising, and even less about the specific role of Luxemburg in it. Frölich, himself a participant in the revolutionary upheavals which followed close on the heels of the war, should, it would seem, be in a position to clarify a number of problems raised in connection with the January uprising:

  1. How did it happen that a few days after Luxemburg addressed the newly founded Communist Party on its tasks, pointing out that the time for the revolutionary overthrow of the Ebert-Scheidemann republic had not yet arrived, that the party would have to do a great deal of spade work before social conditions would be ripe for the decisive struggle, and a few days after the Communist Party adopted a program which opposed putschism, street fighting broke out in Berlin and finally led to the defeat of the working class?
  2. Since Luxemburg herself regarded as a trap the decision of the Revolutionary Committee to call a demonstration to resist the provocations of the government and to over-throw it, was she right in not accepting Radek’s advice that the party advise the workers to call off the demonstration and beat a retreat?
  3. Was the estimate of the situation as adopted by the Communist Party at its founding conference correct?
  4. Is there any connection between the role Luxemburg played during the January days and her concept of the relationship between party and class?

Frölich does not even venture to consider the last two of these. The first two he answers in a very curious manner. To the first, he declares that there was no Spartacus uprising! But in dealing with the second question he proceeds as it he had never made that statement, explaining Luxemburg’s reason for acting as she did.

Frölich quotes Clara Zetkin, who based her remarks on a letter from Jogiches:

The young Communist Party led by Rosa Luxemburg was therefore faced with a very difficult task involving many conflicts. It could not accept the object of the movement – the overthrow of the government – as its own, but at the same time it could not let itself be separated from the masses who had joined in the movement. Despite the difference of opinion the party had to remain with the masses in order to strengthen them in their struggle against the counter-revolution, and further the process of revolutionary maturity by making the circumstances and significance of their action abundantly clear to them. The Communist Party therefore had to show its own face and make its own position crystal clear, but without breaking the revolutionary solidarity it owed to the fighting workers. Its role in the action had to be at once negative and critical on the one hand, and positive and encouraging on the other.

Among other reasons for Luxemburg’s rejection of Radek’s advice was the fact that the movement was beginning to spread to other sections of Germany and she believed that the struggle conducted with sufficient determination and energy would compel the government to make concessions which would advance the position of the revolution. Frölich declares that Luxemburg was justified in her general policy, but ends by saying:

However, there still remains a residue which causes real misgiving. The party tactics consisted in defending the revolution, but the defense should have been conducted actively and not passively; it should have consisted of mobilizing every possible resource of the revolutionary proletariat for an offensive to compel the enemy to retreat both politically and militarily. And when it became only too clear that this mobilization of the revolutionary masses was impossible, and that a military offensive was also impossible, then surely energetic pressure should have been put on the “Revolutionary Committee” in the interests of thousands of workers occupying strategically very unfavorable positions and in order to arrange for their retreat to safety?

It is not very clear whether Frölich himself believes that “energetic pressure should have been put on the Revolutionary Committee” or whether he is merely posing the problem. Assuming the former to be the case, he must then mean that this pressure should have been exerted by the Communist Party. What then becomes of his earlier explanation that the Communist Party was too small and too weak to play that kind of independent role? It is plain that Frölich himself, knowing the significance of the January defeat and the role it played in the inner life of the Communist Party, does not wish to commit himself.

And lastly, in dealing with the Spartacus events, Frölich should have felt it incumbent upon himself to place these events in their historic context. How important was the January defeat? Was it of transitory importance or did it have far-reaching effects which influenced the future course of the German Communist Party? It is necessary not only to give all the pertinent information about these events (which Frölich obviously does not do), but also to indicate their place in the history of post-war Germany.

Spontaneity and the Party

In many of her viewpoints, Luxemburg came into sharp conflict with the other leaders of the socialist movement – with the social reformists on the one side and with revolutionary Marxists on the other. Among the disagreements which existed between Lenin and Luxemburg, two are of special interest today.

In dealing with each of these Frölich falls short of the mark as historian – in the one case by not treating the subject historically and thereby making it virtually impossible to understand the disagreement; and, in the second case, by seeking to bridge over the dispute by maintaining that it was only a strategic difference which arose out of the different conditions in which each leader worked. The first is the matter of disagreements on the “organizational question” and the second is in reference to the national question on which Lenin and Luxemburg had principled differences but which Frölich presents as a strategic difference resulting from “the fact that objective conditions had placed the two great working class leaders in different positions.”

It is understandable that Frölich should try to minimize the differences that Luxemburg had with Lenin on the organizational question because they have been deliberately exaggerated and distorted by the Stalinists in order to convert “Luxemburgism” into a political punching bag (much in the same manner that “Trotskyism” was invented). In order to carry out their perversion of Lenin’s concept of democratic centralism and the role and function of the party, the Stalinists twisted Luxemburg’s “theory of spontaneity” into a mythological system and used it to justify their bureaucratization of the party as the Leninist concept. In reality, they over-stepped Luxemburg’s worst fears (and Lenin’s too) when she warned against bureaucracy. The author writes:

The theory of spontaneity which Rosa Luxemburg is supposed to have developed is said to be the negation, or at least the deprecation of the role of the party as the leader of the class struggle; an uncritical worship of the masses as such; an overestimation of the impersonal and objective factors; a negation, or at least a deprecation of the importance of conscious and organized action; and, finally, complete abandonment to the mechanical fatalism of the historical process.

Frölich is absolutely correct when he defends Luxemburg against this charge, pointing out that her whole life, her pre-occupation with getting the party on a correct political footing, her whole drive to action, are a refutation of it. For Luxemburg believed that the party must stand at the helm of the working class, that it must issue directives, must influence its actions, and set its aims as the achievement of the socialist revolution.

He is likewise correct in chastizing her so-called followers who think that Luxemburg’s opposition to Lenin meant that she was against centralism and discipline, for she believed that the party must be democratic and centralized, unified and disciplined, as was demonstrated by the Polish Social-Democratic Party which she helped to found.

What then were the differences between Lenin and Luxemburg?

In order to understand them it is necessary to examine the differences in the situations which each faced. When Lenin wrote What Is to Be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Back, he was writing about the Russian movement, which was then composed of illegal, isolated, practically autonomous groups, scattered throughout that vast country, and often pursuing opposing policies. His main argument was against the “Economists,” who, believing that the coming revolution in Russia would be a bourgeois revolution, sought to limit proletarian activity to the economic struggles against the employers.

What Kind of a Party?

It was Lenin’s contention that the working class, through its independent development, could achieve a trade union consciousness, but only a vanguard party, composed of professional revolutionists completely identified and fused with the working class, could imbue it with a socialist consciousness and make it aware of its great historic mission. In his pamphlets Lenin outlined the organizational steps necessary to be taken in order to achieve this kind of organization. He wanted a vanguard party closely connected with the masses, but hierarchically organized, with definite bodies, committees, and a program to which all members adhered, and which they actively carried out. The party was to be headed by a central committee which was responsible to the party congress, with the political leadership in the hands of the editorial board of the central party organ, which board could organize and reorganize the units of the party, admit or reject members, and make all political decisions.

In these pamphlets Lenin was referring to the Russian party at the turn of the century. He later explained that he deliberately exaggerated the points he made in order all the more effectively to argue against the “Economists.” Lenin’s concept did not favor a bureaucratic party, as was demonstrated by the democracy within the party during his lifetime, especially prior to the revolution, and his specific proposals were in connection with the given party, functioning under Czarist illegality, at a given time. They can be understood only in this connection. The fact that the party, during the course of its history, adopted different organizational forms is testimony of the fact that Lenin did not conceive of his proposals in 1902 and 1904 as universal and eternal. What Lenin regarded as a principle, however, was democratic centralism. But Luxemburg also believed in it.

Frölich points to the possibility that in his earlier writings Lenin might have exaggerated his formulations in order to drive home his arguments, but that he was elastic enough to change his tactics in situations calling for such change. As a matter of fact, Lenin himself explained his exaggerations, for he stated that:

The basic mistake of those who polemize against What Is to Be Done 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 part ... 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 had not been preached in an “exaggerated” manner to people who stood like obstacles in the way of its realization ... What is to Be Done polemically corrected economism, and it is false to consider the contents of the brochure outside of its connection with this task.

While agreeing with his political arguments against “economism,” Luxemburg polemized against Lenin’s organizational concepts. In order to understand her opposition, Frölich should have pointed out that she was arguing from the viewpoint of one functioning in the German Social-Democratic Party, which was a mass organization with long established institutions, with a strong base in the trade unions, themselves under socialist direction, with a substantial representation in the parliamentary field. In this party, “centralism” meant control by a party leadership which held the masses back, relied upon trade union and parliamentary activity as a means of struggle to such an extent that it became an end in itself. To break through this conservatism on the part of the party leadership she relied upon the independent activity of the masses, which she believed would correct the errors of the leadership.

Unless this dispute is set against its historic background it cannot be understood. Frölich mentions this in passing, but he does not give it as the key to the disputes. Instead he makes references to Lenin’s ability as a tactician who could swiftly change his point of view or deviate from his “principle” when conditions demanded it, and to a difference in character between the two leaders.

But Luxemburg differed with Lenin on the role of the party. These differences too were based on their different experiences with the party. Lenin saw more clearly the specific importance of the party, its role as that of educator and organizer of the actions of the masses. Luxemburg believed that the forms of organization would be determined by the struggle itself, that it was unwise and unnecessary for the party to decide in advance what the tactics of struggle should be. This was born out of the conditions of the German Social-Democratic Party, whose leadership tried to confine the struggle to the trade union and parliamentary tactics, whereas Luxemburg foresaw that new tactics would be developed in the course of the struggle. Lenin, on the other hand, believed that the party should try to work out and organize these tactics in advance.

In general, Luxemburg overestimated the historic process and underestimated the importance of the subjective factor – the party. For the whole post-war period elevated the importance of this factor – a period in which the historic process has produced numerous revolutionary situations which were missed because of either the absence of a revolutionary party or the weaknesses of existing revolutionary parties.

Differences on the National Question

The attitudes of Lenin and Luxemburg on the national question were distinctly different. Lenin proclaimed the principle of the right of self-determination for the small oppressed nationalities of Europe and for the colonial and semi-colonial countries. The defense of this right by the workers, especially those of the large, imperialist countries, was based on his concept that it was the extension of bourgeois democracy in the field of the national problem and as with all bourgeois democratic rights, the working class should strive for as full an achievement of them as possible.

Luxemburg rejected the right of self-determination in principle, declaring that its achievement was impossible under imperialist capitalism and that under socialism its application was unnecessary. She wrote:

National states and nationalism are empty vessels into which each epoch and the class relations in each particular country pour their particular material content.

While Lenin was for the right of Poland to establish itself as a free and independent nation, Luxemburg favored cultural autonomy for Poland in a Russian democratic republic. Over a period of many years this disagreement produced a number of lively polemical articles on both sides and it is obvious to anyone reading this material that the difference was one of principle. While it is true that the objective conditions in which each of the great leaders functioned, Lenin in an oppressor nation which had within its borders a hundred different nationalities, and Luxemburg in an oppressed nation which sought its independence, largely influenced their respective positions on the national question, it is not correct to say, as Frölich does, that this was the real reason for their disagreement. Neither Lenin nor Luxemburg would have agreed to such an explanation. During the war, the position of Lenin and Luxemburg with regard to one of the countries involved in the dispute on the national question, e.g., Poland, coincided. This was due to the fact that regardless of their difference on the principle of the right of self-determination, both were, above all, revolutionaries who placed the international interests of the working class as a whole above the interests of any of its national sections. The imperialist war of 1914–18 was the all-dominating factor and determined for both Lenin and Luxemburg their attitudes toward the national struggles which had become subordinate to it. During the war, Lenin was no longer an advocate of Polish independence, because a higher principle – opposition to the imperialist war – had come into conflict with it.

To draw the conclusion from this that their differences on the Polish or national question were reconciled, as Frölich does, is false and does not do justice to Luxemburg. Their agreement on Poland was episodic; they were brought together on this question, so to speak, by their common attitude toward the war. In 1916, Lenin wrote in defense of the Polish Social Democrats (party of Luxemburg) when they opposed the slogan of national independence for Poland and he emphasized throughout that their position was correct “at present,” “in the present epoch,” etc. (during the imperialist war). This in no way constituted a change of position with regard to the general principle of the right of self-determination.

When Frölich attempts to show that Lenin was in agreement with Luxemburg in her solution of the strategic problem for Poland by quoting this famous passage of Lenin, with-out Lenin’s underscoring of the phrases quoted above, he confuses the entire problem. For in the selfsame article from which he quotes, Lenin takes the Polish and Dutch Social-Democrats to task for transforming their particular position on Poland and Holland into a general opposition to self-determination. While agreeing that their arguments are correct from the particular position of Poland “in the present epoch,” he goes on to say that they are obviously incorrect in the general form in which they are presented. This is the key to understanding Lenin’s position.

When the Polish Social Democrats claimed that the realization of Polish independence would mean the creation of a small Polish state which would be a military colony of one or the other group of great powers, Lenin wrote: “All this is very true in opposition to the slogan of Polish independence at the present time, for even a revolution in Poland alone would not alter anything, while the attention of the Polish masses would be diverted from the main thing: from the connection between their struggle and the struggle of the Russian and German proletariat.” He goes on to condemn the position of the Polish nationalists, the right wing of the Polish Socialist Party, and to praise the Polish Social-Democrats for opposing Polish nationalism during the war. However, he adds: “But the very arguments which are correct from the standpoint of the particular position of Poland in the present epoch are obviously incorrect in the general form in which they are presented.”

If this does not make clear that Lenin’s agreement with Luxemburg on the Polish and national question was conjunctural during the war, the following should.

Views in the Junius Pamphlet

In her Junius Pamphlet, Luxemburg demonstrates that during the war all national struggles had become submerged in the general imperialist conflict and that any small country wishing to conduct a struggle for independence during the war could do so only as the tool of one of the imperialist camps. She concludes that in the imperialist epoch there can be no more national wars. Frölich tries to bridge this by saying that what Luxemburg meant was that “nationalist wars between imperialist powers were no longer possible.”

It is not clear from the Junius Pamphlet that Luxemburg is referring to national wars on the part of imperialist countries. Only when her statements in this pamphlet are understood in connection with her other writings does it become obvious that she is referring to national wars waged by small countries. (At the time of writing of the Junius Pamphlet Lenin was not aware of the author’s identity. Had he known that it was Luxemburg he would at once have been certain of what was meant in some of the more obscure passages.)

In the Junius Pamphlet, Luxemburg refers to Serbia’;s right to self-defense, except that it had become a pawn in the hands of Russian imperialism in the war and therefore the Serbian socialists were correct in refusing to vote for war credits. “All small states, as, for instance, Holland, are today in a position like that of the Balkan states ... Whether it wished to or not, it would become a member of one of the great national alliances.” Following this she concludes: “Thus it is always the historic milieu of modern imperialism that determines the character of the war in the individual countries, and this milieu makes a war of national self-defense impossible.”

It was against this thesis that Lenin argued, pointing out that such a position “loses sight of the national movements against imperialism” and that it is tenable only if the “world has been divided up among a handful of great imperialist powers, and therefore, every war, even if it starts as a national war is transformed into an imperialist war and affects the interests of one of the imperialist powers or coalitions.”

It is impossible to bridge the differences between Lenin and Luxemburg on this question by a purely conjuncture agreement as in the case of Poland.

For a time after the war it seemed that the national question in Europe was “solved,” and that the dispute could be considered an academic one. However, this question has come up again and again, in the Soviet Union as well as in capitalist Europe. The inability of the labor movement to give a satisfactory answer to it gave the advantage to the fascists, who knew how to make demagogic use of the national aspirations of the peoples of that continent. The present war has once again placed the national question before the revolutionary movement, and it is in this connection that the opposing viewpoints of Lenin and Luxemburg take on practical significance. All the more important is it to have a dear presentation of these views.

The two weaknesses which characterize the book are so marked that they tend to destroy its value. The lack of historic outlook and the fruitless attempt to reconcile opposing points of view make it virtually impossible to get from the book a clear understanding of Luxemburg’s work and role. A whole generation has grown up and entered the revolutionary movement since her heroic death, a generation confronted with problems handed down from the First World War They naturally look to the lives and teachings of the great leaders not for outright answers to these problems, but for guidance and method of solving them. A book on the life of Luxemburg could have been of tremendous value had it been written in such a vein. But this book serves no such function. While containing stray bits of interesting information about the life of Luxemburg, it contributes nothing important to the knowledge of those already acquainted with the history of that period, and will surely confuse rather than educate the young student of our movement. A definitive biography of Rosa Luxemburg has still to be written.


1. Rosa Luxemburg, Her Life and Work, by Paul Frölich, Victor Gollancz, Ltd., London, 1940.

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