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John Molyneux

Marxism and the Party

4. Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative view

Lenin’s theory of the party has had many critics and opponents both from outside and from within the working-class movement, but its most important critic and the most articulate proponent of an alternative view of the party, who was also a revolutionary socialist, was Rosa Luxemburg.

1. Polemics against Lenin – the spontaneity of the masses

Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish revolutionary who spent the most important years of her life as theoretical leader of the extreme left of German Social Democracy. In 1899 she emerged, with her pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution, as the principal opponent of Bernsteinian revisionism, and thereafter she increasingly recognised and fought against the inertia and conservatism of the Kautskyite centre. But it was her close interest in the development of the Russian socialist movement [1] that led her to formulate her own distinctive view of the role of the revolutionary party and its relationship to the working class. Disturbed by the 1903 split in the Russian party and by what she regarded as Lenin’s ‘ultra-centralism’, she took issue with Lenin in a famous pamphlet, written in 1904, called Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy. [2]

In this work she begins, as a marxist should, by situating the problem of party organisation firmly in the context of the peculiar tasks and problems facing the proletarian movement as a whole in Russia. Because, she argues, Russia has not yet achieved a bourgeois revolution and still suffers the domination of an absolute monarchy, the proletariat has not had the benefit of the political education and organisation that a period of bourgeois democracy inevitably brings. In Russia, therefore, she writes:

The social democracy must make up by its own efforts an entire historical period. It must lead the Russian proletarians from their present ‘atomised’ condition, which prolongs the autocratic regime, to a class organisation that would help them to become aware of their historic objectives and prepare them to struggle to achieve those objectives ... Like God Almighty they must have this organisation arise out of the void, so to speak. [3]

In this context of a struggle against the disconnected clubs and local groups characteristic of the past period in Russia, she finds it ‘understandable why the slogan of persons who want to see an inclusive national organisation should be “centralism”.’ [4]

But, she warns, ‘Centralism does not completely cover the question of organisation for Russian Social Democracy.’ [5] For although, ‘it is undeniable that a strong tendency towards centralisation is inherent in the social-democratic movement (springing from the economic make up of capitalism)’ [6], it can be carried to a point when it hinders the unfettered development and initiative of the working class itself.

The social-democratic movement is the first in the history of class societies which reckons, in all its phases and through its entire course, on the organisation and the direct, independent action of the masses. Because of this, social democracy creates an organisational type that is entirely different from those common to earlier revolutionary movements, such as those of the Jacobins and the adherents of Blanqui. [7]

Because the proletariat learns and develops both its class-consciousness and its organisation in the course of the struggle itself,

there do not exist detailed sets of tactics which a Central Committee can teach the party membership in the same way as troops are instructed in their training camps. [8]

For this reason social-democratic centralism cannot be based on the mechanical subordination and blind obedience of the party membership to the leading party centre. For this reason the social-democratic movement cannot allow the erection of an air-tight partition between the class-conscious nucleus of the proletariat already in the party and its immediate popular environment, the non-party sections of the proletariat. [9]

Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg argues, has forgotten or does not appreciate this basic distinction between the organisation of social democracy and that of Jacobinism or Blanquism. In opposition to Lenin’s dictum that the revolutionary social democrat is nothing other than a ‘Jacobin indissolubly joined to the organisation of the proletariat, which has become conscious of its class interests’, she writes ‘The fact is that the social democracy is not joined to the organisation of the proletariat. It is itself the proletariat.’ [10] Therefore at all costs it must not be straitjacketed by an ultra-centralised and disciplined form of organisation, but allowed free rein to develop. The great forward steps of the movement in terms of tactics and methods of struggle are not invented by leaders or by a central committee, but are the ‘spontaneous product of the movement in ferment’. [11]

The unconscious comes before the conscious. The logic of the historic process comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historic process. The tendency is for the directing organs of the socialist party to play a conservative role. [12]

For Luxemburg, Lenin’s failure to appreciate this conservative tendency was particularly dangerous in Russian conditions where the proletarian movement was young and as yet not fully matured in its political education.

To attempt to bind the initiative of the party at this moment, to surround it with a network of barbed wire, is to render it incapable of accomplishing the tremendous tasks of the hour ... [13]

Nothing will more surely enslave a young labour movement to an intellectual elite hungry for power than this bureaucratic strait-jacket, which will immobilise the movement and turn it into an automaton manipulated by a Central Committee. [14]

In addition to these general warnings on the dangers of Lenin’s ‘ultra-centralism’, Luxemburg also takes up the question of the party rules and opportunism. Echoing the arguments of Trotsky (see Chapter 2 above), she dismisses ‘the idea that the road to opportunism can be barred by means of clauses in a party constitution’. [15] Opportunism is an historic product and an inevitable phase of the movement. She maintains that: It is naive to hope to stop this current by means of a formula written down in a constitution. [16]

Concluding her critique of Lenin’s organisational theses, Luxemburg returns to her starting point, situating the dispute in the overall development of the class struggle in Russia in an eloquent and memorable passage.

In Lenin’s overanxious desire to establish the guardianship of an omniscient omnipotent Central Committee in order to protect so promising and vigorous a labour movement from any mis-step, we recognise symptoms of the same subjectivism that has already played more than one trick on socialist thinking in Russia.

It is amusing to note the strange somersaults that the respectable human ‘ego’ has had to perform in recent Russian history. Knocked to the ground, almost reduced to dust by Russian absolutism, the ‘ego’ takes revenge by turning to revolutionary activity. In the shape of a committee of conspirators, in the name of a non-existent Will of the People, it seats itself on a kind of throne and proclaims it is all-powerful. But the ‘object’ proves to be the stronger. The knout is triumphant, for czarist might seems to be ‘legitimate’ expression of history.

In time we see appear on the scene an even more ‘legitimate’ child of history – the Russian labour movement. For the first time bases for the formation of a real ‘people’s will’ are laid in Russian soil.

But here is the ‘ego’ of the Russian revolutionary again! Pirouetting on its head, it once more proclaims itself to be the all-powerful director of history – this time with the title of His Excellency the Central Committee of the Social Democratic Party of Russia.

The nimble acrobat fails to perceive that the only ‘subject’ which merits today the role of director is the collective ‘ego’ of the working class. The working class demands the right to make mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history.

Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee. [17]

Thus, for Luxemburg, Lenin’s whole organisational plan was a subjectivist or voluntarist (in philosophical terms, idealist) deviation from an historical materialist approach produced by the combination of an immature proletarian movement and the enormous tasks facing it. Against Lenin’s emphasis on the role of the party and its leadership, she stressed the potentially conservative role of such a body and contrasted it to the revolutionary spontaneity of the masses in struggle.

Rosa Luxemburg developed these themes further in her pamphlet, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, written in 1906, to explain to the German working class the significance of the events of the previous year in Russia. It shows how many of the ideas posed theoretically and generally in Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy became concrete reality in the enormous revolutionary upheaval that was Russia in 1905. Above all it is a celebration of the initiative and daring with which the working class finds solutions to problems that have baffled the theorists for decades.

1905, Luxemburg showed, was merely the culmination of five years of turmoil in which Russia was continually aflame with mass strikes. These strikes were the outward manifestation of the inner maturation of the revolution itself: Often they began without any preparation or even strike funds and, contrary to all previous schemes, rather than following upon trade-union organisation, they preceded it and gave it a powerful impetus. Often, also, the immediate cause was a minor grievance; the mass strike of January 1905 in St Petersburg which led to the march on the Winter Palace began over the sacking of two men at the Putilov Works. What united all these actions was their spontaneity. They had no predetermined plan and were not called for by any party or body of leaders and were only possible because the revolution itself had unleashed hitherto undreamed of initiative, courage and self-sacrifice in the masses. An attempt, Luxemburg noted, at the end of the movement, by the Central Committee of the RSDLP, to call a mass strike over the opening of the Duma, fell absolutely flat.

Also central to Luxemburg’s critique of established preconceptions of the class struggle was her attack on the mechanical separation of the economic and political struggles (a dichotomy clearly present in What Is To Be Done?). The Russian workers had not conformed to these categories either.

But the movement as a whole does not proceed from the economic to the political struggle, nor even the reverse. Every great political mass action, after it has attained its political highest point, breaks up into a mass of economic strikes. And that applies not only to each of the great mass strikes, but also to the revolution as a whole. With the spreading, clarifying and involution of the political struggle, the economic struggle not only does not recede, but extends, organises and becomes involved in equal measure. Between the two there is the most complete reciprocal action ...

Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle ... And conversely. The workers’ condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting energy alive in every political interval ...

In a word, the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect here continually change places; and thus the economic and the political factor in the period of the mass strike now widely removed, completely separated or even mutually exclusive, as the theoretical plan would have them, merely form the two interlacing sides of the proletarian class struggle in Russia. [18]

As we can see, The Mass Strike pamphlet is of a piece with the polemic against Lenin. Just as Lenin’s organisational plan was subjectivist, so are those who seek to plan mass strikes. Her main theme in both works is to warn against overestimating the capacities of the party and especially the party leadership.

There are quite definite limits set to initiative and conscious direction. During the revolution it is extremely difficult for any directing organ of the proletarian movement to foresee and to calculate which occasions and factors can lead to explosions and which cannot. Here also initiative and direction do not consist in issuing commands according to one’s inclinations, but in the most adroit adaptability to the given situation, and the closest possible contact with the mood of the masses. [19]

Twelve years later Rosa Luxemburg returned to essentially the same ideas when, in her work The Russian Revolution, she criticised the Bolsheviks for their restrictions on democracy.

The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of the dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – not the case ... The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, a historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realisation, as a result of the developments of living history ... The whole mass of the people must take part in it. Otherwise, socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals. [20]

2. The role of the party

From this passionate emphasis on the self-activity and initiative of the working class, which dominated all her political thought and action, what conclusions did Rosa Luxemburg draw as to the role and nature of the revolutionary party? To answer this question it is first of all necessary to be clear as to the conclusions she did not draw, for she has so often been misrepresented on this score by would-be supporters and critics alike.

She did not, as has frequently been suggested, propound a theory of purely spontaneous revolution in which the revolutionary party and political leadership were irrelevant. This is easy to establish for her whole political career and practically everything she wrote testifies against it. From when, as little more than a schoolgirl, she joined the Polish Proletariat Party to the end of her life, she was always a member of a political party. Indeed the SDKPL, organised by her closest comrade Leo Jogiches in conditions similar to those in Russia, was extremely hard, centralised and conspiratorial. In Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy she wrote that ‘social democracy is, as a rule, hostile to any manifestations of localism or federalism. It strives to unite all workers and all worker organisations in a single party.’ [21]

In The Mass Strike she devoted a section of the pamphlet to arguing the need for united action between the trade unions and the Social Democratic Party under the general authority of the party. [22] After 1914 and the collapse of the Second International into chauvinism, Luxemburg, like Lenin, advocated the building of a centralised as against a federal International. At the end of The Junius Pamphlet she wrote in the appended Theses on the Tasks of International Social Democracy:

3. The centre of gravity of the organisation of the proletariat as a class is the International. The International decides in time of peace the tactics to be adopted by national sections on the questions of militarism, colonial policy, commercial policy, and the celebration of May Day, and finally, the collective tactic to be followed in the event of war.

4. The obligation to carry out the decisions of the International takes precedence over all else. National sections which do not conform with this place themselves outside the International. [23]

From this it is clear that Rosa Luxemburg recognised the need for the working class to be led by a revolutionary party every bit as much as did Lenin. It was in the conception of what kind of party this was to be and what its tasks were that the differences with Lenin lay. Because of her supreme confidence in the abilities of the workers in struggle, she saw the principal tasks of the party in terms of political leadership as opposed to the issuing of calls to action and the actual organisation of the struggle. ‘Instead of puzzling their heads with the technical side, with the mechanism, of the mass strike, the social democrats are called upon to assume political leadership in the midst of the revolutionary period.’ [24]

Essentially this is a propagandistic conception of the tasks of the party and this has implications for the degree of centralism and discipline required by the party organisation. The strict discipline demanded by Lenin was above all to achieve unity in action. A party which generally speaking restricted itself to propaganda would have no need of such a stern regime; the free play of ideas would be much more important. One of the best illustrations of the difference between Luxemburg and Lenin in this respect is the contrast in their attitudes to party administration and routine. Lenin was always intensely involved in all the minutiae of party organisation, finance and the preparation of congresses, but Luxemburg took hardly any part in these matters in either the Polish or German parties. Her biographer, Nettl, writes:

At some stage a formal party decision (by the SDKPL) was reached that she should not concern herself with organisational matters at all, that she should not participate in any of the official conferences or congresses. [25]

Also, because her mind was focused on the task of propaganda, the distinction between the party member subject to the discipline of the party organisation and the party’s supporters or sympathisers, which was so vital for Lenin, concerned her much less, as her warning against ‘the erection of an air-tight partition’ between the party members and their ‘immediate popular environment’ showed.

Thus for Luxemburg the influence of the party over the proletariat was to be exercised primarily through its ideas, its programme and its slogans rather than through the power of its organisation or its own initiation of actions, whereas in Lenin these two elements were much more evenly balanced.

It is important to keep these differences between Luxemburg and Lenin, significant though they were, in perspective. The attempt has been made to suggest that Luxemburg’s divergence from Lenin over the nature of the party made her in some way fundamentally separate from the mainstream of revolutionary marxism in the twentieth century – that she represented a democratic, almost liberal, version of marxism as opposed to the dictatorial intransigence of Lenin. Bertram D. Wolfe, one of the leading proponents of this view, writes in his introduction to The Russian Revolution and Marxism and Leninism:

Though they [Lenin and Luxemburg] were both called ‘revolutionary’ socialists, their diverse temperaments, and differing attitudes on the nature of socialist leadership, on party organisation, and on the initiative and self-activity of the working class, kept them poles apart. [26]

The argument here is that Luxemburg’s objections to Lenin’s ‘ultra-centralism’ were fundamental whereas their agreement as revolutionary socialists was something accidental or superficial. But this is a gross distortion, perpetrated so as to enlist Rosa Luxemburg in the ideological battle of the cold war. It is conclusively refuted in the very document that Wolfe advances as his main piece of evidence, The Russian Revolution. [27]

The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of the historical possibilities ... It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this 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 Hutten ‘I have dared’.

This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settling of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to Bolshevism. [28]

Moreover within months of writing these words Luxemburg was engaged in the most concrete form of practical solidarity with Lenin by participating in the foundation of the German Communist Party. [29]

Rosa Luxemburg was a thinker of great stature and independence. As such she inevitably differed with Lenin on many points of theory and tactics; but what she shared with Lenin – total commitment to revolutionary marxism and the international class struggle of the proletariat – was much more fundamental. They debated fiercely, yes, but within a shared framework, and not at all in the way that both of them fought Bernstein and the later Kautsky. Only on the basis of an understanding of this shared framework, their common starting point, can their disagreements on the nature and role of the party be properly grasped and estimated.

3. The background to Luxemburg’s views

If, as we have argued, Lenin and Luxemburg started from the same fundamental premises, how then are their very real differences on the question of the party to be explained? Explanations in terms of Luxemburg’s temperament do not get us very far. Whatever temperamental aversion she may have felt for Lenin’s methods, she was a sufficiently disciplined revolutionary to have overcome her personal feelings had she thought it politically necessary, just as Trotsky did in 1917. Even less can they be attributed to any intellectual weakness on her part, for there was little exaggeration involved when Franz Mehring described her as: ‘the most brilliant intellect of all the scientific heirs of Marx and Engels’. [30]

The real roots of Luxemburg’s differences with Lenin lay in the very different historical situations in which they operated. Although both Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy and The Mass Strike took the Russian workers’ movement as their subject, it is clear that Luxemburg wrote very much with an eye to the German situation and with the German experience in mind. In The Mass Strike this orientation is explicit, but even in the earlier work we find that when she wants a concrete example of the dangers of over-centralism and the conservative tendencies of leadership it is German Social Democracy and its adaptation to parliamentarianism that she cites. [31] Above all it was the German situation which shaped her conception of the party; and the conditions facing the German and Russian labour movements could hardly have been more dissimilar.

In the first place, on coming to Germany Luxemburg joined socialist party the world had seen – with hundreds of thousands of members, thousands of local organisations, eighty or so daily papers and several decades of struggle behind it. Lenin, however, had to build up a party from scratch. Thus, whereas Lenin had to take very seriously all the practical (and therefore the theoretical) problems of organisation, efficiency and professionalism, Luxemburg could take all this for granted. Exactly how the party should be organised was never an issue in the SPD, and there is no evidence that she ever thought seriously about the details of organisation at all. In this respect the contrast with Lenin could not be more complete.

In the second place was the fact that both the SPD and their associated trade unions had already reached an advanced stage of bureaucratisation in what was the fatherland of bureaucracy and order. As we have already noted in this study, the German workers’ movement sustained a huge layer of privileged and sedentary officials whose watchword ‘organisation’ served as a perennial alibi for avoiding action. Either the organisation was not yet strong enough for action or, alternatively, the action would jeopardise the organisations. This Rosa Luxemburg saw more clearly and earlier than any other marxist, certainly long before Lenin, and she reacted violently against it. It was in order to break through this great morass of conservative officialdom that she urged so forcefully the spontaneous creativity of the masses.

Moreover it was precisely spontaneity and struggle that were lacking in the German labour movement. The level of strike activity in the German working class in the first years of the century was very low. In the six years 1900 to 1905 there was an average of 1,171 strikes per year involving an average of 122,606 strikers per year (which puts the average number of workers per strike at only 104). [32] Compare this record with the figures for Russia where, with a very much smaller labour force, there were 87,000 strikers in 1903; 2,863,000 strikers in 1905 (1,843,000 of them involved in political strikes); and 550,000 political strikers in 1912. [33] From this it can be seen that the German workers’ movement, for all its great socialist party and magnificent organisations, was relatively weak and passive in the elementary class struggle against the employers, while in Russia, where there was no mass party and where trade-union organisation was practically non-existent, the workers fought great battles against both the bosses and the state. It was in the nature of a revolutionary like Rosa Luxemburg, just as it was in the nature of Lenin, to put all the emphasis on what appeared to be the key missing element in the situation – which for her was spontaneity and mass action from below. Thus Lenin, taking spontaneity as given, could write; ‘Give us an organisation of revolutionaries and we will overturn Russia’, whereas Luxemburg said, in effect, ‘Give us the spontaneity of the masses and we will have the revolution.’

In addition to these general factors, Luxemburg was also influenced by the specific situation within the SPD. The obvious first step towards building a genuine revolutionary party in Germany would have been the formation of a faction inside the SPD. But this would have been extremely difficult, for she would have had very little support for her views – even Lenin would not have supported such a venture before August 1914. The authority of the party’s two great leaders, Kautsky as theoretician and Bebel as practical organiser, was immense – far greater than that of Plekhanov, the only comparable figure in Russia – and the influence that Luxemburg did have in the German movement she owed, at least in part, to their tolerance of her and to the fact that until 1910 she had the ear of Kautsky. What is more she needed an alliance with the centre of the party to combat the threat of Bernsteinism.

Finally, there was the fact that having a faction invariably raises the question of a split and this Rosa Luxemburg was completely against. It is possible that she was influenced in this by the fate of the Independent Socialist Party, quite a large group of revolutionaries who split from the SPD in 1891, accusing it of reformism. This had a very short life before completely disappearing. As late as January 1917 Luxemburg was still arguing against a split:

However commendable and comprehensible the impatience and bitterness which leads so many of the best elements to leave the party today, a flight remains a flight. It is a betrayal of the masses who, sold to the bourgeoisie, writhe and choke from the stranglehold of Scheidemann and Legien. One may withdraw from small sects when they do not suit one any longer in order to found new sects. It is nothing more than immature fantasy to want to liberate the mass of the proletariat from this heavy and terrible yoke of the bourgeoisie by a simple withdrawal, and thus set a brave example. The discarding of membership cards as an illusion of liberation is nothing but the illusion, stood on its head, that power is inherent in a membership card. Both are different poles of organisational cretinism, the constitutional sickness of old German Social Democracy. [34]

4. The strengths and weaknesses of her position

We have shown how Luxemburg’s emphasis on spontaneity and her conception of the role of the party were conditioned by her specific historical situation, but explanation is not justification. It is necessary also to make an assessment of her views in terms of their ability to solve the problems facing the working class in its struggle for power. We should begin by stating her merits, since her ideas have too frequently been dismissed by marxists simply on the authority of What is to be done?

Rosa Luxemburg was right that the most important advances in the field of tactics and methods of struggle of the proletariat are not invented by any central committee or leadership but are discovered and created by workers themselves in the heat of the battle. This has been demonstrated again and again, both on the grand scale with the spontaneous creation of a new type of state (the Paris Commune; the Russian Soviets), and in a similar way with factory occupations and the innovation of the flying picket (British miners and building workers in 1972).

She was right that the class struggle in full flow does not allow the mechanical separation of the economic and the political, and her formulations on this question in The Mass Strike are far more dialectical than some of the abstract schemas in What is to be done? Again recent struggles of the British working class illustrate this admirably. The existence of the Tory Industrial Relations Act and the wages freeze in the early 1970s meant that purely trade-union, economic disputes such as the dockers’ struggles against containerisation in 1972, the strike for trade-union recognition at the Con-Mech factory in 1973 and the miners’ strike in 1974 inevitably transformed themselves into mass political battles against the law and the government. Indeed, since modern capitalist governments are today more and more compelled to intervene in industry and to make wage restraint the centre of their whole strategy, the political and economic struggle of the working class is more closely fused than ever and this aspect of Luxemburg’s thought has become increasingly relevant.

Luxemburg was right to warn about the inherent conservative tendencies at the top of socialist parties and even in parties as a whole, which are produced by isolation from the dynamic forces at work unseen in the depths of the working class. Lenin himself, as we have seen, experienced this within the Bolshevik party both in 1905 and 1917. A contemporary marxist, Duncan Hallas, has explained clearly how this can happen even on the factory floor itself:

It sometimes happens that even the best militants find themselves overtaken by events and occupying a position for a shorter or longer time, to the right of previously unmilitant workers. The experience is familiar to active rank-and-file trade unionists. Slogans and demands that were yesterday acceptable only to the more conscious people can quite suddenly be too limited for the majority when a struggle develops beyond the expected point. Inevitably the greater experience and knowledge of the activists induces a certain caution, normally appropriate, but which, in a rapidly changing situation, can sometimes be a real barrier to advance. [35]

She was right also to oppose to Lenin’s conception of the introduction of socialism into the working class ‘from without’, the enormous role and achievements of spontaneity. The party is neither the fount of all wisdom nor the omnipotent managing director of the class struggle, and there is an element of truth in the charge that Lenin was bending the stick too far in the direction of voluntarism (though, as we have shown, this was also, in a sense, his great achievement).

Thus on a number of points Rosa Luxemburg was closer to a correct marxist analysis than was the Lenin of 1901–04. [36] Unfortunately her conception also contained decisive weaknesses which were clearly exposed in the course of history. It is easy to see the one-sidedness of her views on the spontaneity of mass strikes. While such strikes can, and frequently do, break out spontaneously, this is not necessarily the case, nor is it always an advantage. The British General Strike of 1926 illustrates this well. All the force, energy and initiative for the strike came from below, but the strike was planned and was called by the leadership, the General Council of the TUC, and most important it was effectively demobilised by that leadership at the crucial moment. In the months prior to the strike the British ruling class prepared very carefully, both politically and militarily, for the confrontation. Clearly in that situation marxist criticism would be directed not at the idea that the strike could be planned but against the General Council for failing to plan and prepare sufficiently when it was known that the enemy was doing so. But this was a relatively minor fault, which Luxemburg was easily capable of correcting. [37] Much more significant is the fact that her strategy failed the all important test of the German revolution itself.

In the long awaited German revolution of 1918–19 Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League (originally formed as a faction inside the SPD in 1916) proved itself to be the only consistently revolutionary force in Germany. Nonetheless it was too weak in numbers, experience and in organisational cohesiveness to decisively influence events. Rather it was continually blown about in the revolutionary gale unable to formulate a coherent strategy other than calling repeatedly for mass action and all power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. Radek, present as an emissary from Russia, reported that at the onset of the revolution the Spartacists had no more than fifty organised people in Berlin [38], and even at the Conference at which the Spartacus League founded the German Communist Party, he felt moved to comment: ‘I still did not feel that I was in the presence of a party.’ [39]

Even Rosa Luxemburg’s most ardent and uncritical supporter, Paul Frölich, confirms this picture of weakness (though he does not recognise its harmful effect on strategy): ‘When the revolution came the Spartakusbund was only a federation of local groups existing in almost all the larger towns, and not yet a political party.’ [40] In addition it suffered all the ‘infantile disorders’ of a youthful organisation. Luxemburg and the Executive were overruled by a substantial majority at the KPD founding conference on the question of participation in the elections to the National Assembly. (The Bolsheviks had disposed of this kind of ultra-leftism a decade before the test of 1917.) Unable to make a substantial impact within the workers’ councils, the Spartacus League was forced into an unstable alliance with the USPD (Independent Social Democrats, who had split from the SPD in 1917) and the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, and then had to attempt to disentangle itself when the latter elements vacillated. In the end, despite the words of its own programme that: ‘The Spartakusbund will never take over governmental power except in accordance with the clear and explicit will of the great majority of the proletarian masses in Germany’ [41], it was overtaken by events and led into a hopelessly premature rising which resulted in the crushing of the revolution and the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

Luxemburg was undoubtedly aware of the mistakes that were being made, but was powerless to prevent them. Thus her failure to weld the advanced workers together in a disciplined independent vanguard party eventually cost her her life. That she had not begun this task as Lenin had in 1903 was due perhaps to unavoidable historical factors, but that it was not done later was in part a conscious decision. Nettl records that: ‘The Spartacus leaders deliberately decided to forego any sustained attempt to create an organisation in 1918. They held that the revolutionary possibilities made this an unnecessary dispersal of effort.’ [42]

The other great defect in Luxemburg’s strategy was her underestimation of the ability of reformist leaders to hold back and disorientate the working class. Although she was the first to perceive the theoretical implications of Bernsteinism and the passivity of the Kautskyite centre, she nonetheless failed to foresee the paralysing and divisive effect these tendencies would have on the working class even in the midst of the mass actions she longed for. In 1913 she wrote: ‘Leaders who hang back will certainly be pushed aside by the storming masses.’ [43]

But in reality this did not prove so simple. Instead the social democrats were able to exploit the long-established allegiance of millions of workers to sabotage the revolution. It was because of her failure to grasp this problem early enough that Luxemburg did not see the need to combat opportunism organisationally – that is, by clauses in the party constitution, by splitting etc. – as well as by political debate.

5. The theoretical roots of her errors

We have already indicated the background to Luxemburg’s views and one can see how both the strengths and weaknesses of her position were historically conditioned. But what of the theoretical roots of her errors? We must turn for the source of these mistakes to two interrelated areas of her thought: her analysis of the process by which the proletariat develops its revolutionary consciousness, and her conception of the dynamics of the revolution itself.

For the mainstream of social democracy consciousness was seen as developing through a harmonious process of gradual accumulation without contradictions and without qualitative leaps. Luxemburg’s emphasis on the spontaneity of the masses placed her furthest of all the western marxists from this orthodox view, but she still did not break the circle completely. It was not that she over-estimated the heights to which workers could spontaneously rise but that she overestimated the evenness with which this process could occur. Clearly she recognised that some workers are more capable and courageous than others and that some have a higher level of socialist consciousness than others. What she did not fully comprehend was that between the revolutionary worker who wishes to overthrow capitalism and the less advanced worker who wishes to improve his conditions within capitalism there exists a certain contradiction (albeit not an insoluble one); and that on the basis of this contradiction there arise parties claiming to be parties of the working class, but which actually operate as bourgeois agents within the labour movement.

It was because of this gap in her theory that she failed to see the necessity of organising the advanced revolutionary workers separately and independently so as to increase their influence within the class as a whole, and to equip them for struggle against opportunist and reformist influences on the class. Her underestimation of the negative effects of bad leaders also derives from this source. For if the working class radicalised not only spontaneously but also uniformly, then indeed ‘leaders who hung back would be pushed aside by storming masses’. [44]

As for Luxemburg’s concept of the revolution, a comment by Tony Cliff can serve as our starting point:

The main reason for Rosa Luxemburg’s overestimation of the factor of spontaneity and underestimation of the factor of organisation probably lies in the need, in the immediate struggle against reformism, for emphasis on spontaneity as the first step in all revolutions. From this one stage in the struggle of the proletariat she generalised too widely to embrace the struggle as a whole. [45]

We can further develop this by saying that Luxemburg tended to identify the mass strike (which frequently coincides with the spontaneous outbreak of revolutions) with the climax of the revolution itself. In The Mass Strike she wrote as follows:

Today when the working classes are being enlightened in the cause of the revolutionary struggles, when they must marshal their forces and lead themselves, and when the revolution is directed as much against the old state power as against capitalist exploitation, the mass strike appears as the natural means of recruiting the widest proletarian layers for the struggle, as well as being at the same time a means of undermining and overthrowing the old state power and of stemming capitalist exploitation ...

The chief form of previous bourgeois revolutions, the fight at the barricades, the open conflict with the armed power of the state, is in the revolution of today, only the culminating point, only a moment in the process of the proletarian class struggle. [46]

But in fact the general strike, whatever its size, strength and militancy, merely raises the question of power – it does not and cannot resolve it. Only the destruction of the old state power through insurrection can do that. And insurrection must, by its very nature, be organised: it must be a unified, simultaneous action of decisive sections of the proletariat, prepared in advance and in secret and set for a definite date. Its execution demands, therefore, a well established chain of command with influence and authority extending throughout the class. In other words the insurrection, as was shown by our analysis of the October Revolution in Chapter 3, can be organised successfully only by the party – and not just any kind of party, but a disciplined combat party capable of moving as one.

It would not be true to say that Rosa Luxemburg never considered the question of insurrection (she wrote a small pamphlet on it in January 1906 [47]) but it is mentioned only incidentally in The Mass Strike and there is no evidence that she ever faced the problem squarely or thought through its implications for the nature of the party. Had she done so, she would have been forced to revise her propagandistic conception of the role of the party (for it is precisely with the insurrection that the balance between propaganda and action in the work of the party shifts decisively in favour of the latter) and also her views on discipline and centralism. Lenin, by contrast, had related the nature of his organisation to the seizure of power from the beginning.

The problem of the insurrection and the party is also related to the unevenness in the consciousness of the proletariat in a way that is particularly relevant to the fate of Rosa Luxemburg in the German Revolution. The opposite side of the same coin, which causes some sections of the class to lag behind others (and to continue to adhere to reformist parties), is the impulse the revolution gives to the advanced workers to attempt to seize power prematurely. Exactly this occurred in the Russian Revolution with the ‘July Days’ and in the German Revolution with the January Rioting. In Russia, as we noted in Chapter 3, the Bolsheviks were able to clearly oppose the adventure, prevent it doing too much damage, preserve their organisation and prepare for the next round in the battle. In Germany the Spartacus League was swept along by events to disaster. The difference lay, not in Lenin’s ‘intelligence’ or ‘realism’, as against Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘revolutionary romanticism’, but in the existence in Russia of a hardened party with authority among the advanced workers and its absence in Germany.

6. Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg

The reference points for any overall judgement of Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of the party must necessarily be Marx and Lenin. In many respects Luxemburg was closer to Marx than was Lenin. She shared Marx’s strengths, his opposition to sectarianism and his emphasis on the mass activity of the working class. She also shared his weakness: an over-optimistic and foreshortened view of the process by which the class-in-itself transforms itself into a class-for-itself – the assumption that the objective economic unity of the working class would spontaneously lead to its ultimate political unity. Consequently she shared with Marx a certain tendency toward fatalism in the sphere of organisation. We have already noted that against Lenin she was not entirely in the wrong in the polemics of 1904, but Lenin was able, through the experience of 1905, to correct the onesidedness of his early formulations and so make good his decisive advance over Marx, whereas Rosa Luxemburg was not. Had she lived to assimilate and reflect on the experience of the German Revolution, it is possible, indeed probable, that she would have achieved this correction.

As it stands Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of the party and its relationship to the working class remains a useful weapon in a labour movement which, throughout the world, has suffered decades of bureaucratic domination by social democracy and Stalinism alike. But ultimately it is a useful weapon only insofar as it is integrated into the framework of Leninism. As an alternative to Leninism, Luxemburgism must be judged invalid.


1. It was Rosa Luxemburg’s continued involvement in the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKPL) which explains her particular concern with Russia, since Poland was then part of the Russian Empire.

2. This was published in English under the misleading title of Leninism or Marxism?, in Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, edited and introduced by Bertram D. Wolfe, Ann Arbor 1971.

3. ibid., pp. 82–83.

4. ibid., p. 83.

5. ibid.

6. ibid., p. 85.

7. ibid., p. 86.

8. ibid., p. 88.

9. ibid.

10. ibid., p. 89.

11. ibid., p. 91.

12. ibid., p. 94.

13. ibid.

14. ibid., p. 104.

15. ibid., p. 103.

16. ibid.

17. ibid., p. 108.

18. ibid., p. 185.

19. ibid., p. 188.

20. ibid., p. 69–71.

21. ibid., p. 85.

22. Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, in Mary Alice Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, New York 1970, pp. 207–208.

23. Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, in Mary Alice Waters (ed.), op. cit., p. 331.

24. Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, op. cit., p. 189.

25. J.P.Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. 1, London 1966, p. 265.

26. Bertram D. Wolfe, Introduction to Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Marxism or Leninism?, op. cit., p. 1. This view has some strange and heterogeneous supporters, including Stalinists, for whom any criticism of Lenin was tantamount to heresy and for whom Luxemburg’s emphasis on working-class spontaneity represented not only a deviation but also a threat. (For an account of Luxemburg at the hands of Soviet and East European historians see J.P.Nettl, op. cit., Vol. II, Chapter XVIII, and Trotsky, Hands off Rosa Luxemburg, in Mary Alice Waters (ed.), op. cit., pp. 441–50); and various anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, and ‘Luxemburgists’ who have sought to form groups or movements independent of Stalinism or Trotskyism. (See Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and the Fourth International, in Mary Alice Waters (ed.), op. cit., pp. 451–54).

27. This critique of some aspects of Bolshevik policy in the Russian Revolution was written by Luxemburg in prison in 1918, and never published in her lifetime. It did not see the light of day until Paul Levi published it in 1921, when he was expelled from the Communist International.

28. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, op. cit., p. 80.

29. Wolfe’s contention that Luxemburg opposed the formation of the Third International is, typically, based on the misleading elevation of a tactical disagreement over timing into a matter of principle.

30. Cited in Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg, London 1972, p. 140.

31. See Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, op. cit., p. 93.

32. These figures are calculated from the strike statistics in Sozialgeschichtliches Arbeitsbuch, Materialien zur Statistik des Kaiserreichs 1870–1914, Munich 1975, p. 132.

33. Figures from Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, London 1977, p. 59.

34. Cited in Tony Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg, London 1959, p. 52.

35. Duncan Hallas, The Way Forward, in John Palmer and Nigel Harris (eds.), World Crisis, London 1971, p. 266.

36. For a marxist who takes a similar view see Tony Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg, op. cit., p. 45.

37. It should be noted that when, in 1910, the German working class went into battle for equal suffrage, Luxemburg herself ‘demanded that the Party Executive work out a great plan of action’. Paul Frölich, op. cit., p. 171.

38. See J.P. Nettl, Vol. II, op. cit., p. 747.

39. ibid., p. 752.

40. Paul Frölich, op. cit., p. 279.

41. ibid., p. 270.

42. J.P. Nettl, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 724.

43. Cited in Paul Frölich, op. cit., p. 143.

44. Once we have grasped this fundamental weakness many of Rosa Luxemburg’s other errors fall into place – for example her opposition to the right of nations to self-determination and to the Bolshevik policy of land to the peasants. In both these cases it was the uneven development of socialist consciousness among the masses that dictated the tactics of the Bolsheviks and in both cases Luxemburg failed to grasp this.

45. Tony Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg, op. cit., p. 43.

46. Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, op. cit., p. 202.

47. For extracts from, and a discussion of, this pamphlet, see Paul Frölich, op. cit., pp. 102–108. Unfortunately Frölich makes an unconvincing attempt to equate Luxemburg’s views on insurrection with Lenin’s.

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