Written in 1983, Lindsey German's introduction to Tony Cliff's book on Rosa Luxemburg gives a brief snapshot of her revolutionary life and ideas
When Rosa Luxemburg was murdered in 1919, her old adversary Karl Kautsky wrote: 'Rosa Luxemburg and her friends will always occupy an outstanding position in the history of socialism: but they represent an era that has come to an end'. He was completely wrong. The revolutionary tradition upheld by Rosa Luxemburg in Germany was to play a decisive role in the years immediately following her death.
For revolutionaries today, it is amazing how many of her ideas, and the political positions she fought for, remain relevant. So much of her analysis has been borne out by events, while the compromises and hesitations of those who opposed her during her lifetime (and their followers today) have also been shown at best to lead up blind alleys, at worst to disaster. Rosa Luxemburg delivered her first attack on the reformists in the 1890s, bitterly opposing the idea that capitalism could be neutralised and transformed to the benefit of workers. Today we still face reformist parties, some of them in government as in France or Spain. Rosa Luxemburg's arguments against them are still relevant.
Rosa Luxemburg said that the choice facing humanity was between 'socialism or barbarism'. She could not have imagined the barbarism of nuclear war, but her ideas help us in the fight against it. Capitalist competition in the age of imperialism, she argued, takes on more and more the form of military as well as economic competition, which is why the fight against militarism is not the separate or moral fight which the reformists then and today believed it to be, but a fight against the whole capitalist system.
Above all perhaps her greatest contribution was her understanding that the mass general strike was playing and would continue to play a more and more central role in the revolutionary transformation of society. Experience of revolutionary movements today, from Hungary in 1956 to France in 1968 and Chile in the early 70s, shows how correct that analysis was — yet it was either opposed or ignored during her lifetime.
All these ideas deal with some of the major problems facing socialists today. This is the reason for again reprinting Tony Cliff's small book on Rosa Luxemburg. When first written it was an attempt to make her basic ideas accessible to a new audience, unfamiliar with both the writings and the period in which Rosa Luxemburg wrote and acted. In that, it succeeds very well. We are given a clear introduction to her ideas, whether on the national question, reform and revolution, or the accumulation of capital. But simply to leave the book as it stands would give an incomplete assessment of Rosa Luxemburg's strengths and weaknesses.
The reason is straightforward enough. When the book was first written 25 years ago, its aim was to present Rosa Luxemburg's ideas in order to reassert the revolutionary socialist tradition. This tradition — that, in Marx's words, 'the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class' — had all but disappeared after the 1920s. The gross bureaucratic structures of Stalinism in the east and the Communist or Socialist parties in the west produced a view that socialism was achieved by the few on behalf of the many. And in a strange way the small Trotskyist groups which did still uphold revolutionary ideas mirrored this approach. They took the view that the working class would eventually come to the 'correct' programme (theirs) and so make the revolution. In other words these groups felt they had nothing to learn from the working class or the day-to-day class struggle.
Rosa Luxemburg's ideas are particularly refreshing against such a background. Time and again, she stresses that the socialist revolution is made by the spontaneous actions of the working class. Revolutionaries must learn from and try to generalise those actions.
Such ideas were completely foreign to the Stalinism which dominated at the time Cliff's book was written. The Stalinist parties believed that the party was there to represent and act on behalf of the working class. The class struggle was not seen as the activity of the working class itself, in which revolutionaries intervene to try to lead it in a revolutionary direction. Rather, action was to be decided on by the leadership of the party — and they would then try to get workers to agree to it. Spontaneous struggles, far from being welcomed, merely upset and often challenged the existing order of things.
Rosa Luxemburg herself faced exactly this attitude in the huge, passive and propagandist German socialist party, SPD, to which she belonged for most of her politically active life. But her polemics against this sort of organisation — formal, stultifying and ultimately willing to accept the capitalist system — have laid her open to many criticisms. Stalin and his followers characterised her ideas as `spontaneise. She just tailed along after workers' spontaneous struggles, they said, and didn't understand the role of socialist organisation in directing this struggle.
Such attacks are gross distortions of Rosa Luxemburg's views. She always stressed the importance of organisation (which is one of the major reasons she was so reluctant to break from the SPD). Not only that, from her teenage years she was always herself a member of socialist organisations, both in Poland and Germany. Even so, there is little doubt that her view of socialist organisation was often flawed and sometimes wrong. These failings had serious consequences for the direction of the German and Russian revolutions. It is therefore worth looking at Rosa Luxemburg's writings on class struggle, on revolutionary socialist organisation and on the relationship between the two in more detail. Cliffs original does not go into sufficient detail in this respect. Also, because it was written before the growth of the revolutionary left in Europe in the 1960s, and their subsequent ups and downs, it doesn't test recent experience against that of Rosa Luxemburg.
By far the best of Luxemburg's writings on class struggle is her pamphlet on the 1905 revolution in Russia, The Mass Strike. Here she tries to explain a new phenomenon — the general strike. Today the idea of a general strike is in no way strange — but in 1906 it was a bombshell. Hard to believe though it may seem now, the attitudes of socialists toward such strikes had always been extremely negative. It had always been the anarchists who had stressed the strike as the way to destroy capitalism — although they thought this was all that was required. Even when socialists accepted the strike as a tactic, they saw it as essentially defensive.
This was the position held by the SPD at the outbreak of revolu1 ion in Russia in 1905. Rosa Luxemburg's analysis of events and her conclusions presented a strong challenge to these ideas. They also provoked personal and political attacks from various SPD members, especially the trade union leaders. She was already unpopular with them for her description of trade union activity as a 'labour of Sisyphus' (one that never ends). Now they were horrified that she was encouraging struggle which went far beyond the orderly approach of the German unions.
The Mass Strike was a new and unique recognition of the role of the strike in the revolutionary process. Rosa Luxemburg saw that as capitalism developed, the mass strike would become more and more central. Socialist revolution was not simply the takeover of the capitalist system by one group rather than another. It wasn't simply a change in the outward political forms. It was also — and had to be — an economic challenge by the workers which struck at the very heart of the capitalist system. This gave the workers their political power.
Rosa Luxemburg ridiculed the idea that there was a division between the political and economic struggle (an idea beloved of reformists then and now). Strikes can begin over seemingly trivial economic demands but rapidly generalise to become a challenge on a broader political level — against the government, the employers or the law. The other side of the coin, she said, is that political revolution has to become an economic challenge, otherwise it will ultimately fail an argument to which she returned in the course of the German revolution of 1918-1919.
Rosa Luxemburg also attacked the idea that the strike should be called up or its course determined in a mechanical way. The party could not say when or how such a strike would materialise. 'The mass strike cannot be called at will, even when the decision to do so may come from the highest committee of the strongest Social Democratic party', she wrote. Nor could a revolutionary general strike arise in a period when there was no revolutionary potential.
The pamphlet was a celebration of the strikes and revolution in `backward' Russia, a guide to action for revolutionaries and, by implication, an attack on the German party trade union leaders. Like the trade union bureaucracy today, they saw the general strike as a last resort, a pressurising tactic, rather than a necessary part of the revolutionary struggle.
Rosa Luxemburg emphasised throughout that the working class has to emancipate itself and there can be no blueprints laid down for the nature of this self-emancipation. In doing so she attacked bureaucratisation inside socialist parties. But in the process — although she always stressed the need for organisation — she never formulated what sort of organisation was needed. This proved a major weakness.
Like every other leading member of the Socialist Second International, Rosa Luxemburg was a product of her time and circumstances. The Social Democratic parties had grown in the last years of the 19th century, often into sizeable organisations. They adhered to the formal politics of Marx but often included in their ranks both reformists and revolutionaries — and those who swung between the two. The dominant belief was that socialism would arrive gradually and inevitably and therefore their main job was not intervention in the day-to-day class struggle but propaganda. The socialist strength of these parties was not often tested in practice which meant they could contain all sorts of people who agreed about very little.
Rosa Luxemburg always understood, perhaps more sharply than any other, the dubious politics of many of those inside the German party. She also saw the need to take part in the day-to-day struggles of workers. But she never drew the organisational conclusions from this understanding. She believed until very late in her life that there was no alternative to remaining inside the SPD.
It was left to the Russsian Bolsheviks and Lenin — part of a much smaller socialist movement — to develop a form of organisation which was able to intervene much more successfully and eventually to lead the Russian working class to take state power. In 1903, the Russian Social Democratic party split over a seemingly trivial issue — whether party members should work under the discipline of the party, or whether conditions of membership should be much looser. The two parties resulting from the split were known as the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.
Rosa Luxemburg attacked the split and Lenin's concept of a disciplined 'democratic centralist' party. She recognised, with Lenin, the special circumstances in Russia — a backward economy, tiny working class and autocratic, repressive government — but argued that none of these should lead to centralised party organisation. She said such 'ultra-centralism' would cut the Russian party off from the working class.
Lenin, on the other hand, argued that precisely because of these conditions the working class would not be able to achieve socialist revolution without such a party. A loose, flabby party of the sort which existed in Germany would not do (although Lenin himself did not believe until much later that the form of organisation in Germany itself was wrong). He therefore set out to build a disciplined organisation which implemented decisions, once they were democratically decided, in a unified and coherent manner.
Rosa Luxemburg was not the only person to attack him. Many well-known socialists, in Russia and abroad, did so too. He was accused of being unnecessarily sectarian, of narrowing the base of the party, and of wanting to set up a minority 'Jacobin' dictatorship. In explanation he wrote in 1903:
'We argued that the concept "Party member" must be narrowed so as to separate those who worked from those who merely talked, to eliminate organisational chaos, to eliminate the monstrous and absurd possibility of there being organisations which consisted of Party members but which were not Party organisations'.
A revolutionary party had to have unity in action, he said, and this demanded as a precondition theoretical clarity and political understanding.
'Achieving ideological unity = propagating definite ideas, clarifying class differences, effecting ideological demarcation . . . propagating ideas that can lead forward, the ideas of the progressive class.'
What Lenin managed to achieve in building such a party was precisely to test party members in practice. This meant that during the `dress rehearsal' revolution of 1905 the Bolsheviks were not only able to intervene, but they were also able to learn the lessons of the mass strikes, of the new soviets or workers' councils which had sprung up from this struggle, and of the role of the party in these organisations. And although that party declined in the years of reaction which followed, it was able to hold together as a coherent force, even when it had little support. And its success was to show in 1917.
The revolution of February 1917 broke out in Russia in the way described earlier by Rosa Luxemburg in The Mass Strike — through the mass spontaneous upsurge of workers' struggles. It was not led by the Bolsheviks — indeed they were taken by surprise. But the test of the party was how it could relate to, generalise and spread these struggles. Here, because of its structures, organisations and political clarity, it was able to assess the class nature of the revolution, to hold back the most advanced sections of the class from moving towards a premature rising in July, to help repel the attempted right-wing coup by Kornilov in August, and to lead the successful October insurrection.
In other words, at every crucial point in the revolutionary process — when the success of workers' power hung in the balance — the Bolshevik party was able to act decisively to lead it to success.
Soviet power in Russia led to a revolutionary wave throughout Europe. This was essential. Lenin himself believed that 'without a revolution in Germany we shall perish'. Russia was too economically backward to sustain socialism alone. All eyes looked to Germany, the major capitalist power with the strongest workers' movement and the largest socialist party. But that party had already shown that far from being committed to socialist revolution, it was prepared to go to great lengths to prop up the capitalist system.
Rosa Luxemburg had become increasingly aware of this. She had argued vehemently with various groups inside the party — with the `revisionists', the trade union leaders, the 'gradualists'. But the nature of the SPD was such that these arguments remained purely at the level of argument. They therefore usually remained above the heads of the ordinary workers and party members that she needed to influence. So she remained in a minority.
Such political arguments also became increasingly divorced from the party rank and file. Far from the party being the vehicle which aimed to combat ruling class ideas, it became a party which reflected these ideas. This was against everything Rosa Luxemburg stood for. But she recoiled from the idea of setting up any alternative party. She remained inside the SPD, despite increasing isolation in the years before the outbreak of war in 1914. She did form a small group of co-thinkers to combat the rightward drift of the party, but it remained a propaganda group and didn't build real links with party workers.
The betrayal of the SPD leadership in supporting the war of German imperialism in 1914 probably didn't come as a total surprise to Rosa Luxemburg. After all, their reaction to the Morocco crisis in 1911 had been similar, if less serious. What came as a much greater shock was the almost universal support for the leadership among the party members and in the working-class movement. Support for Rosa Luxemburg's stand against the war could be counted among a few individuals only — the result of her political isolation.
Even then, however, Rosa Luxemburg didn't break from the party. Only in 1917, when the Independents broke away under the pressure of anti-war feeling and formed their own organisation, did she also leave. And only on her release from prison in the last months of 1918 did she set out to build a party on the Bolshevik model — the German Communist Party (KPD). Even this she did reluctantly, feeling that the embryo party was too immature to develop.
Why did Rosa Luxemburg not follow the Bolshevik pattern and build an independent revolutionary party?
Firstly, no one thought that the theories developed by Lenin applied generally before 1917. This special form of organisation, they said, applied only to the specific conditions in Russia. Secondly, the German SPD to which Rosa Luxemburg belonged was by far the largest and most impressive workers' party in the world. The idea of splitting from it would have filled most people with horror. And because in practice the dominant view of politics was propaganda, it obviously made more sense to put out your ideas from a large party than from a small one.
But it was also the case that Rosa Luxemburg relied very heavily on the power of intellectual argument. This meant she believed that although revolutionary ideas might be in a minority at certain periods, the working class would look to those ideas when the revolution arrived. In a sense this was obviously true. And in 1918-19 millions of German workers did look for revolutionary ideas. But they didn't look to Rosa Luxemburg and the new KPD, they looked to the old party and its leaders — people who were prepared to talk left-wing ideas at such a time, but whose past words and deeds told a very different story. Rosa Luxemburg had been consistently principled in her revolutionary politics — but this fact wasn't known to the mass of workers for she had remained largely hidden in the SPD.
Belief in the power of intellectual argument can also lead to a certain abstention from the day-to-day running and building of a party. The other party to which Rosa belonged — and which she had helped to form much more than the SPD — the Polish Socialist Party, gave some inkling of this. Her biographer John Nettl notes that the Polish party's leaflets during the 1905 revolution were far more intellectual and abstract than those of the Bolsheviks, and far less in touch with workers' struggle.
This wasn't completely accidental. It stemmed from an idea of the party as something which developed fully fledged rather than growing out of the experience of its members in the everyday struggle. The Polish leader Leo Jogiches, Rosa Luxemburg's lover and lifelong collaborator, expressed doubts at the formation of the KPD in 1918 because of its lack of maturity (an undeniable fact). It was as though he expected political maturity to appear magically to fit the situation, rather than seeing it as developing only as the party withstands the tests of time and intervention.
This failure to build a revolutionary socialist party early enough had a terrible impact on the German revolution. Unlike Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg had no organisation which could be tried and tested in the course of small disputes before being thrown into the heat of revolution. So the newly formed KPD could not take full advantage of the revolutionary opportunities of 1918-19.
And Rosa Luxemburg herself suffered from her failure to build such a party. No socialist can remain indefinitely an isolated if talented individual without suffering political distortions. This was precisely the role she adopted for much of her political life. She showed great courage in speaking out and acting against the party leadership — but as an individual. Lenin wrote of The Junius Pamphlet (before he knew Rosa Luxemburg was its author): 'Junius's pamphlet conjures up in our mind the picture of a lone man who has no comrades in an illegal organisation accustomed to thinking out revolutionary slogans to their conclusion and systematically educating the masses in their spirit.'
Rosa Luxemburg's understanding of the problems facing the German revolution was acute when she emerged from prison in November 1918. She also understood the need to build a revolutionary socialist party. But because she acted as an individual she had a tendency to blur her political clarity in public, in order, she felt, not to alienate the best sections of the working class.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks, with experienced members in the factories, members who were tried, tested and respected because of years of hard class struggle, could criticise the action of workers during the ferment of revolution — for example holding workers back from what would have been a disastrous premature rising in July 1917 — because these members could carry and win the argument within the working class. But Rosa Luxemburg's isolation, her failure to build a revolutionary socialist party years earlier, meant that she lacked this solid base on which to stand. She was reluctant to criticise for fear of being seen as abandoning workers in the heat of struggle. Yet such criticism was vitally needed, as the premature rising of German workers in January 1919 was to show.
The result was a terrible personal and political tragedy. Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and many others paid with their lives. But the tragedy was not just theirs. In a short space of years, the lack of a party in Germany led to the defeat of the German Revolution, followed by the defeat of socialist hopes. on a world scale, the growth of fascism in Germany and of Stalinism in Russia. Rosa Luxemburg's stirring defence of workers' spontaneous struggles was not enough when those struggles erupted and needed to be harnessed to the challenging and taking of state power.
Rosa Luxemburg has had the misfortune since her death to be praised by all sorts of people who would run a mile at the mention of revolution. Her stress on spontaneity and what the Stalinists claim was her downgrading of organisation has led to compliments from those as far away from her politics as Labour Party leaders Eric Heffer and Michael Foot. She would have been disgusted by such praise, because had they been members of the German SPD she would have denounced them time and again. She would also be shocked by those who today try to use some of her writings to justify attacks on Lenin's ideas on the party. Those who doubt this should read her attacks — for example the article Either/Or — on those who believe there is some middle road between reform and revolution.
Rosa Luxemburg stood clearly in the tradition of revolutionary socialism, of internationalism and of workers' self-emancipation.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Tories: the Covid mask slips – weekly briefing
- The trouble with terrorism – weekly briefing
- No Platform: Free speech for all?
- Now it’s neither heat nor eat – weekly briefing
- Sexual violence, economic violence: why women still need our rights – weekly briefing
- Discontents for all seasons – weekly briefing
- The Pandora’s Box of 9/11 – weekly briefing