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Tim Wohlforth

“Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg!”

(Winter 1962)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.1, Winter 1962, pp.25-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?
by Rosa Luxemburg.
Introduction by Bertram Wolfe.
Ann Arbor Paperbacks for the Study of Communism and Marxism, University of Michigan Press, 1961. 109 pages. $1.65.

The publication of some of the writings of Rosa Luxemburg in a popularly distributed form is certainly an event to be greeted warmly by students of Marxism. Rosa Luxemburg ranks with Lenin and Trotsky as among the greatest Marxists of the twentieth century. What makes this publishing venture even more important is that far fewer of Rosa Luxemburg’s work are generally available than those of Lenin and Trotsky.

We are sorry to say that this otherwise happy occasion is severely marred by the arbitrary and crudely factional choice of her writings that appear in this volume and the historically dishonest introduction by Bertram Wolfe. Bertram Wolfe has selected two of her essays in which she engages in a criticism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in order to perpetuate the myth of the two contradictory schools of Marxism the “democratic” school of Rosa Luxemburg and the “dictatorial” school of Lenin. The reader should be wary of Mr. Wolfe’s motives from the very beginning considering that Mr. Wolfe himself is no friend of revolutionary Marxism in any form – but rather among the legion of former Communists who have become “specialists” in anti-Marxism.

We are afraid that Mr. Wolfe and his anti-Marxist colleagues are not the only ones to perpetuate this myth. Ever since Stalin, in one of his luckily rare excursions into historical writing, published his article, Certain Problems in the History of Bolshevism in the early 1930’s, this view of Lenin’s relations with Rosa Luxemburg has been official doctrine in Stalinist circles – except of course they put a minus where Mr. Wolfe today puts a plus. Even the 22nd Congress has not, as yet, led to the rehabilitation of this great revolutionary whom Stalin called a “centrist.”

These articles of Rosa Luxemburg can only be properly evaluated if they are placed in their correct historical context. The period from 1903 to the founding of the Communist International in 1919 was a preparatory period for the birth of a new revolutionary international. No one, not even Lenin, entered that period with a fully worked out understanding of the tasks ahead. Within the revolutionary left there was constant discussion, controversy, polemic. Rosa Luxemburg’s article, incorrectly titled in this collection Leninism or Marxism? was a part of that polemical process.

It is now far easier than it was then to see who was right and who was wrong. Lenin understood more clearly than either Trotsky or Luxemburg what kind of party it was necessary to build – and he went ahead and built the party that led the Russian Revolution. But Luxemburg and Trotsky were not wrong in all the disputes they had with Lenin. For instance it was Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, which Lenin had polemicized against earlier, that anticipated the Bolshevik seizure of power. Rosa Luxemburg, for her part, understood better than Lenin the full significance of the degenerative process going on within the Second International and particularly within the great German party of the International. As early as 1910 she was involved in a fundamental theoretical struggle with Karl Kautsky at a time when Lenin still supported Kautsky. Lenin’s great gift was not that he was infallible, as the Stalinists claim, but that he was able to learn from revolutionists like Luxemburg and Trotsky, and then act resolutely on what he had learned.

This essay, Leninism or Marxism? was originally more modestly called, Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy. It is a polemic against Lenin’s organizational methods and is not too dissimilar to the type of criticism Trotsky made in this period. It should be noted, by the way, that Lenin later stated that at the 1907 London Congress of the Russian party, Rosa Luxemburg supported the Bolsheviks on every important question. Isaac Deutscher in his extremely valuable article The Tragedy of Polish Communism Between the Wars (Temps Modernes, Vol.XIII, pp.1632-1677) had this interesting comment on the controversy:

“It is a curious fact that ... Dzerzhinsky and Radek [leaders of a minority within the Polish party – TW] should have made almost the same criticisms of Rosa Luxemburg as the latter sometimes made of Lenin. In effect they accused her of applying a policy of ultra-centralism in the Party, or enforcing too much discipline in it, etc. In fact Rosa Luxemburg’s party was led in a manner very similar to that in which Lenin led the Bolshevik party. This was due, especially, to the fact that both parties were operating illegally.”

Rosa Luxemburg’s essay The Russian Revolution was written in 1918 in prison. It was published by Paul Levi, her literary heir, in 1921 as a factional move to justify his right wing break off from the German Communist Party. The essay was written on the basis of largely erroneous information furnished her when she was not in a position to judge the events directly.

Her actions in the brief period of her life after leaving prison certainly made clear her revolutionary convictions. She played a leading role in the Spartacus Rebellion and she was one of the founders of the Communist Party of Germany.

In any event, a serious reading of the essay itself makes clear that her criticisms were raised as a defender and supporter of the October Revolution. What a far cry her criticisms are from those of Kautsky who deserted the revolutionary camp at the first sign of real battle – not to mention those of Wolfe who abandoned the defense of the Soviet Union.

But let Rosa Luxemburg speak for herself:

“What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. 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 of 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’!”

We can only repeat the title of Trotsky’s famous article which he wrote in 1932 against Stalin: HANDS OFF ROSA LUXEMBURG. This means you, too, Mr. Wolfe!

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