M. Philips Price

A Posthumous Work of Rosa Luxemburg

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 2, January, 1922 No. 1, pp. 94-97
Transcription: Ted Crawford
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Proofreader: David Tate
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Die russische Revolution: eine kritische Würdigung.
Aus dem Nachlass von Rosa Luxemburg, mit Einleitung von Paul Levi.
Verlag Gesellschaft und Erziehung, Berlin, 1922.

The memoirs and writings of the deceased are often the subject of dispute and even of bitter controversy. If they happen to be those of statesmen or of persons occupying leading positions in the Socialist and Labour movements, they should be published with the greatest discretion. It is, therefore, doubtful if Paul Levi, by bringing out this fragment of Rosa Luxemburg’s unpublished posthumous works, has done a wise thing. All the more so when there is reason to think that he has done so because he has a bone to pick with certain of his former colleagues on the Central Committee of the German Communist Party and on the Third International, and thinks he can use the prestige of the dead Spartacist leader for this purpose. Nevertheless, if taken as what it really is—a single stone in the monumental fabric of Rosa Luxemburg’s literary works—this short publication is of value. All the more important, however, is it to understand the circumstances under which she wrote it and the special object which she had in view.

Rosa Luxemburg wrote this booklet during the summer and autumn of 1918 in prison in Breslau, but owing to the pressure of friends did not publish it. This was just the time when the iron ring of war and blockade was closing round the first workers’ republic in Russia. Not all the facts of the situation were known to her; but she knew enough to be able to understand that the Russian Revolution had accomplished great and irrevocable social changes, particularly in the agrarian system, and that the revolution was in deadly peril, held down by German Imperialism at Brest-Litovsk, attacked by the Allies, and deserted by the proletariat of the West. Her instinct, therefore, made her write, firstly, to justify the Bolshevik leaders for correctly understanding the historical necessity for a proletarian dictatorship in Russia, completing the bourgeois revolution and laying the foundation of the transition period into Socialism, and, secondly, to warn the proletariat of the West against slavishly copying the exact form of that dictatorship, which owing to the tragic isolation of Russia, was developing under most difficult circumstances, and was therefore no criterion for other countries. If one reads this booklet therefore carefully, one can see that Rosa Luxemburg possessed a breadth of view and a historical insight which makes contemptible to-day the quarrellings of German Majority Socialists, Communists, Independents, and the followers of Paul Levi over the interpretation of her views for their narrow party ends.

She commences her work by justifying the seizure of power in October, 1917, by Lenin and Trotsky, and by ridiculing Kautsky and the Mensheviks, who maintained that an unripe agrarian land like Russia must pass through an unadulterated process of capitalist development before the working class can aspire to power. “The service which the Russian Bolsheviks have rendered to history,” she writes, “has been that they have proclaimed a tactic and followed it with iron consequence, which alone could have saved the Russian Revolution and have driven it forward. The real situation in Russia in the summer of 1917 was narrowed down to the alternatives—victory of the counter-revolution or dictatorship of the proletariat—Kaledin or Lenin.” By these words Luxemburg shows herself as the protagonist of the theory which she herself developed in such detail in her Accumulation of Capital, and which has become the sharp dividing line between the Communist and the non-Communist view of the world revolution.

Rosa Luxemburg’s most serious criticism of the tactics of the Russian Bolsheviks is concentrated on two points—their failure after the October revolution to make fuller use of the Constituent Assembly, and their conversion of the whole apparatus of the revolutionary State into an annexe of the Russian Communist Party, whereby all criticism and Press freedom necessarily went by the board. She argues thus: The Constituent Assembly, elected in December, 1917, was a farce, because it was elected on old lists, which no longer reflected the political life of the country. But why did not the Bolsheviks order a fresh election on new lists and let the Assembly sit alongside of the Soviets? To the argument of Trotsky1 that a. Parliamentary Assembly is necessarily a clumsy body, which cannot reflect changes of public opinion in times of revolution, she replies by instancing the Long Parliament and the Great Convention of the French Revolution, which sat for years and correctly reflected these changes. The democratic Parliament, she maintained, if watched over by Soviets, may become a great means for educating the masses in the period of the dictatorship.

Further, she criticises Trotsky, when he writes: “Thanks to the direct fight for the control of the State, the proletariat acquires a mass of political experience and rises quickly from one phase of development to another.” “It is just because this is true,” she says, “that they (the Russian Bolsheviks) have, by suppression of free public life, stopped up the springs of experience and held back the political development of the masses. Freedom only for the supporters of the Government, for the members of one party, is no freedom. The unconscious tendency in the Lenin-Trotsky dictatorship theory is to regard the social revolution as a thing for which there is a recipe ready in the pocket of the revolutionary party. So far from this being the case, the practical measures for realising Socialism are shrouded in the mists of the future. Socialism cannot by its very nature be brought in by decree. The negative, the liquidation of the old regime, can, but not the positive, the creation of the new order. Only experience can correct and open the way. Only unrestricted life, bubbling from below, can hold the creative force and improvise new forms. The whole mass of the proletariat must take part; otherwise Socialism will be decreed by a few intellectuals round a green table, and experience will belong only to a small circle of officials of the new Government, who will not be free from corruption.”

In order to understand these lines, one must remember that Rosa Luxemburg, as far back as 1903, took part in important discussions with the leaders of the Russian, Polish and German Social-Democratic movements on questions of party organisation. Two opposing points of view developed at this time. A section of the Russians and Poles, led by Lenin, held to the theory that the Socialist Parties should be centralised and highly disciplined, and that large powers should be left in the hands of the party executive. This view is explicable, when one remembers the conditions under which the Russian and Polish parties at this time were compelled to work. For legality was impossible under Tsarism and strict measures were necessary to protect the party from police spies and provocation. It was natural, however, that the German and other parties, who had since the abolition of the “Socialist law” enjoyed freedom of Press, Parliament and platform, should be now inclined to concentrate upon the legal character of the Socialist revolutionary work, to emphasise the need of reaching the masses and educating them to the task of realising Socialism. To this latter school Rosa Luxemburg undoubtedly belonged. That does not mean that she in any way endorsed the Reformist and Menshevik standpoint, although they also supported these tactics in respect of party organisation. It was not doubt as to the correctness of the Bolshevik theory of the proletarian dictatorship for the transition period that divided Rosa Luxemburg from Lenin, but disagreement on the forms of organisation of and the role of the Socialist Party in the proletarian dictatorship. “It is not a question of dictatorship or democracy, as the Reformists and Mensheviks like to put it,” says Rosa Luxemburg, “for the dictatorship is really only a method of applying democracy.”

The kernel of her criticism of the Russian Bolsheviks is perhaps found in the following lines of her posthumous booklet: “That the Russian Bolsheviks would have acted differently is certain, if they had not been forced to carry through their revolution under such terrible conditions—the world war, the German occupation, and the Allied intervention. Everything that has happened in Russia is understandable and is an unavoidable result of the failure of the Western proletariat, particularly the German, to come to the assistance of the Russian Revolution. It would be to ask the impossible to demand that under these conditions an exemplary dictatorship and a flourishing Socialist democracy be realised. The danger begins when they (the Russian Bolsheviks) make a virtue out of their necessity, lay down their tactics, which have been forced on them by these fatal conditions of development of the revolution, as the universally correct ones and hold them up as an example to the international proletariat.”

These words of Rosa Luxemburg, while providing the completest justification for the tactics of the Russian Bolsheviks between 1917 and 1920, are a proof also that she would, if she had lived, have not remained uncritical of some of the tendencies of the Third International.




1.  From the October Revolution to the Brest-Litovsk Peace, page 93