Rosa Luxemburg and Marxist politics

Graphic by Julia Casimira.

By Graham Milner

Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919) is one of the greatest figures ever produced by the international socialist movement. Her contribution, as theorist and activist, deserves to be recognised and celebrated by the newer generations of socialist activists who have become involved in the movement in recent decades. Those of us who have been involved in the socialist left for rather longer may also benefit from a critical review of the achievements of this great woman.

Interest in Rosa Luxemburg among historians, political scientists and activists alike has increased considerably since the radicalisation of the 1960s and early 1970s brought with it a re-evaluation of the long-buried revolutionary tradition in the world socialist movement.[1] The questioning of the reformist and Stalinist orthodoxies dominant on the left in the 1950s and 1960s, which accompanied this radicalisation process, made essential a reassessment of those socialist theorists and activists who fitted into neither of these categories.

Luxemburg, although her heritage in part was fought over by both social democrats and Stalinists, remains essentially a "heretic" -- if we employ Isaac Deutscher's usage of the term[2] -- an outsider from the mainstream of 20th century European socialism. The fact that a socialist of her calibre was isolated in this way is a telling commentary on the failures and inadequacies of that movement. The present advanced political and social crises throughout the world demands that Rosa Luxemburg's immense contributions to the theory and practice of revolutionary Marxism are brought to the fore and programmatically incorporated into the vanguard strata of the international working-class movement.

Luxemburg's life activity and her political thought constitute an indissoluble unity.[3] Her political career, like those of Lenin, Trotsky and other outstanding revolutionary socialists, was a living application of the third of Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach".[4] Consequently, any analysis of the development of her political views must be projected upon the terrain of her political practice within the Polish, German and Russian labour movements.


Rosa Luxemburg's position as an "outsider", even within the European socialist movement, is perhaps partly attributable to her birth into a family of the cosmopolitan Polish-Jewish intelligentsia.[5] Many of the greatest figures in European cultural and political history have been Jews, partly due to the tensile relationship between Jewish communities and the often hostile surrounding social environment.[6]

The Poland of Rosa's youth was divided between the Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Romanov empires.[7] The position of Poland, situated as it was in east-central Europe, lent to its emergent socialist movement the combined texture of Russian populism and Western European Marxist social democracy. Luxemburg joined the "Proletariat" party shortly after leaving school in 1887 -- two years before the Second International was founded in Paris.[8] "Proletariat" was at a low ebb when Luxemburg joined, having suffered severely at the hands of the tsarist reaction following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.[9]

From the start Rosa Luxemburg fought under the banner of revolutionary Marxism. Her earliest works were polemics directed against Blanquist and "economist" tendencies within the Polish socialist movement, and they cogently presented the case for a mass political struggle for democratic rights by the growing proletariat. She regarded the bourgeois revolution as an objectively indispensable phase in the development of the territories within the Russian empire.[10]

Self-determination for Poland

It was for her contributions on the question of Polish self-determination that Rosa Luxemburg's role in the Polish labour movement is mainly remembered. This issue was to divide Polish social democracy into two sharply delineated tendencies -- the Polish Socialist Party (PPS)[11] and the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKpil ).[12] The issue was fought out through the battle for recognition between these two parties at congresses of the Second International.[13] It also overflowed into debates conducted within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, founded in 1898.[14]

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had argued consistently in favour of Polish self-determination from the 1840s onwards.[15] Apart from the democratic principle involved, such a struggle was seen as a counterweight to Russian absolutism, which the founders of Marxism considered to be the bulwark of European reaction. After 1871, with the development of an increasingly powerful revolutionary current in Russia, their positions partially altered in content, although not in form. The Polish liberation struggle was now seen as a decisive component in any future Russian revolution.[16] Nowhere, however, in the works of Marx and Engels, was the national question dealt with at length in the form of a treatise, and of course the question of the national struggle in the epoch of imperialism was not raised at all during their lifetimes.

In 1896 Luxemburg represented the SDKpil at a congress of the Second International. In a subsequent article, Luxemburg outlined the position she had presented there.[17] The liberation of Poland was considered utopian due to the country's increasing economic integration into the tsarist empire. Luxemburg held that the unifying political struggle of the proletariat should not be supplanted by "a series of fruitless national struggles".[18] In 1908 Luxemburg published a series of articles under the title The National Question and Autonomy, in which she argued that the right to national self-determination was an abstract, metaphysical right, and that any support for the right to secession implied support for bourgeois nationalism.[19] Later, during World War I, she was to argue that national struggles were entirely superseded in the imperialist epoch.

There are arguably several errors in Rosa Luxemburg's formulations on the national question. First, by insisting that the eminently political issue of Polish self-determination could be reduced to a function of economic development or "historic necessity", she was guilty of crass economic reductionism. The coming into being of the monopoly stage of imperialist capitalism by the late 19th century sure enough formed the economic basis for the superseding of national antagonisms. This could never be an automatic process, however; it would have to be mediated through political action. Herein, incidentally, lies the beauty of Lenin's final formulations on the national question; his recognition of the dialectical character of the slogan for national "self-determination as the right to secede" -- a political articulation of the correct formula for the superseding of national antagonisms.

Closely associated with this failing in Luxemburg's analysis was her conception of the nation as essentially a cultural phenomenon: the political dimension -- i.e. the struggle to establish a nation-state, was thus neglected. Luxemburg did not recognise the revolutionary potential of national liberation struggles, only seeing in them anachronistic, petty-bourgeois features. The history of Third World revolutions in the 20th century is the most telling commentary on this error. By characterising national movements as petty bourgeois or bourgeois in class composition she failed to consider that such movements are those of oppressed masses, including proletarian masses, and that the basis for international solidarity between the proletariats of different nations was the recognition by the proletariat of dominant nation-states of the right to self-determination of oppressed nations (and of the acceptance of the qualitative difference between aspects of the nationalism of the oppressed and the oppressor nations).[20]

Struggle against Bernstein

Rosa Luxemburg's entry onto the stage of German politics in 1898[21] coincided with one of the most momentous conflicts within the pre-war socialist movement. This was the revisionist controversy.[22] Occasioned by the appearance in 1898 of a book -- Evolutionary Socialism -- written by Eduard Bernstein, the literary executor of Engels and a prominent figure in the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) leadership, the debate was in fact deeply rooted in the broadest dynamics of pre-war social democracy.[23]

Although it was formally committed to a revolutionary Marxist program from 1891,[24] the practical affairs of the SPD had in reality become increasingly restricted by the boundaries of reformist parliamentarism.[25] This praxis was intimately related to the essentially stable economic development of the later decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although this economic "boom" involved the accumulation of imperialist contradictions, it nevertheless allowed the regime of the Second Reich in Germany to make significant social and political concessions to the labour movement.[26] The "minimum" program of social ameriolation through partial economic demands (higher wages and improved working conditions) and for increased representation in the Reichstag -- Germany's federal parliament -- and provincial legislatures,[27] clashed with the "maximum" program for socialist revolution outlined by Karl Kautsky in the SPD's Erfurt program of 1891. The whole spectrum of Second International Marxist theory and practice was refracted throught this basic problem.[28]

Rosa Luxemburg took up the cudgels against Bernstein's arguments, and her pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution (1898) stands out as the most articulate defence of revolutionary Marxism in this debate. Bernstein had attempted to refute the basic tenets of scientific socialism, particularly the assertion that capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction; that it cannot maintain itself indefinitely. Bernstein denied the materialist conception of history, the growing acuteness of capitalist contradictions and the theory of the class struggle. He concluded that revolution was not necessary, that socialism could be achieved by gradual reform of the capitalist system, through the mechanisms of consumers' cooperatives, trade unions and the gradual extension of political democracy. Perhaps Bernstein's most famous assertion, which sums up his view of socialism, was that "the movement is everything, the goal nothing".[29]

Luxemburg began Social Reform or Revolution by pointing out that the Bernstein controversy posed the question of "the very existence of the social democratic movement".[30] She argued that Marxism differentiates itself from all forms of utopian socialism insofar as it identifies socialism and the socialist movement with the real process of historical development, i.e. with the tendency of capitalism to progressively socialise the means of production and more and more reduce class antagonisms to a conflict between a tiny minority of monopolistic or oligopolistic capitalists and a vast majority of exploited wage workers (workers whether by hand or brain).[31] Bernstein had argued in Evolutionary Socialism that the development of large credit institutions, the trustification of industry and the emergence of a new middle-class salariat had lessened, rather than aggravated, the contradictions of capitalism.

Luxemburg brings in the key concepts of "ascending" and "descending" phases of capitalist development to refute Bernstein. Cartelisation of industry, the growing influence of finance capital, attempts to coopt the upper strata of organised workers, the militarisation of the state and its attendant bureaucracy: these are all interlinked phenomena of a general malaise (which Luxemburg later more directly characterised as imperialism). They point to the impending demise of capitalism. The nation-state and private accumulation of the social surplus product -- the twin pillars of capitalism -- are now holding up the rational deployment of the internationalised and socialised productive forces. In Luxemburg's view, Bernstein's position was tantamount to an abandonment of the class viewpoint, and his scorn for dialectics corresponded with his failure to deal with capitalism as a total, living organism.[32]

Luxemburg's rejection of vulgar trade unionism (which Bernstein had characterised as an "offensive strategy") as a "labour of Sysiphus" antagonised the conservative German trade union leaders.[33] On the question of parliamentarism and the prospects of bourgeois democracy, Luxemburg presciently remarks in Reform or Revolution that "if it is true that world politics and militarism represent a rising tendency in the present phase of capitalism, then bourgeois democracy must logically move in a descending line".[34] The fate of the German left during the war, to say nothing of the fate of democratic rights in general in the 20th century, springs to mind here. Democratic rights however, for the proletariat, are not ends in themselves, but means to the end of the socialist revolution.[35]

Although Bernstein's views were rejected by the SPD,[36] it was not long before his theoretical arguments were put into practice. Alexander Millerand, a French socialist parliamentary leader, entered a bourgeois cabinet shortly after the Dreyfus affair (1899), in order to "save" the Republic. Thus a cardinal socialist principle was thrown to the winds, and it was not long before Millerand was sanctioning strike breaking. Luxemburg wrote in Neue Zeit (the SPD's theoretical journal) in 1900: "The circumstances which divide socialist politics from bourgeois politics is that the socialists are opponents of the entire existing order and must function in a bourgeois parliament fundamentally as an opposition."[37]

Differences on party organisation

The juxtaposition of German and Russian socialism in Rosa Luxemburg's own political career poses a sharp contrast in organisational and political technique. The Russian movement, starting from virtually nothing in the 1890s had, by the early years of the 20th century, engaged in extended political struggles and debates that had taken the movement far beyond the position it had reached in 1898, the year of its founding congress. The Russians had produced a veritable galaxy of leaders of high calibre: Plekanov, Lenin, Martov and Trotsky stood out as the most brilliant. These men had been tested and steeled in debates with a wide range of opposition tendencies, such as "economism" and "legal Marxism", as well as the still extant populist Narodism. Fighting around the newspaper Iskra, the revolutionary Marxists soon established a solid base in the growing industrial proletariat of Tsarist Russia.[38]

The 1903 congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party marked a point of crisis for the whole movement. A split emerged over organisational issues that developed into a schism dividing Russian socialism from then on. Lenin's views on party structure and organisation (democratic centralism) -- views deeply embedded in his overall conception of Marxism[39] -- were rejected both in principle and practice by a minority of delegates (Mensheviks). The issues raised were to prove of decisive importance in the revolutionary events to come.

Shortly after the 1903 congress Rosa Luxemburg published a polemical attack on Lenin's views entitled Organisational Problems of Russian Social Democracy.[40] It was in this pamphlet that Luxemburg's "spontaneism" is most clearly evident.[41] Nowhere in this document does Luxemburg indicate that she understood organisational issues to be at root political questions. Lenin had clearly grasped -- and this is expressed in What is To Be Done? (1902) and One Step Forward Two Steps Back'(1904)[42] -- that programmatic and tactical questions are always refracted through organisational concepts. Luxemburg disagreed with Lenin that the party should be an organisation of professional revolutionists with deep roots in and ties to the working class. Instead she conceived of the revolutionary party as an organisation of the whole working class. The inevitable uneven character of working-class consciousness under capitalism was not grasped in this conception.

It is quite likely that Luxemburg's organisational concepts grew out of her experiences with the increasingly bureaucratised SPD machine. The US socialist Max Schachtman pointed out that: "The `professional revolutionists' whom Luxemburg encountered in Germany were not, as in Russia, the radical instrument for gathering together loose and scattered local organisations, uniting them into one national party... Quite the contrary. In Germany, `the professionals' were the careerists, the conservative trade union bureaucrats, the lords of the ossifying party machine, the reformist parliamentarians; the whole crew who finally succeeded in disembowelling the movement."[43]

Luxemburg's misconceptions concerning Leninism bore a close resemblance to Trotsky's, and their orientation to the Russian movement in the pre-war period was quite similar.[44] Unfortunately, Rosa's errors were to have more serious consequences, as the revolutionary left of German social democracy found itself in need of an independent organisation during the period of war and revolution after August 1914.

The Mass Strike

The 1905 revolution in the Russian Empire had an immense impact upon the Western European socialist movement.[45] The decisive role of the mass strike in these events was not lost on the revolutionary left of German socialism.[46] Rosa Luxemburg's pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions sought to apply the lessons of the Russian experience (and of her own experiences as a participant in the Russian-Polish Revolution[47]) to Germany. This pamphlet, and the wider debate of which it formed one major contribution, widened the gulf between the attitudes of the conservative trade union bureaucracy and the professed positions of the SPD apparatus.[48]

The idea of the general strike was an old one, originating in fact with the British Chartists, but in the era of the Second International it tended to be rejected as an anarcho-syndicalist concept.[49] Indeed, syndicalism tended to conceive of the general strike in terms of an overall strategy, and there was a belief held that a mass withdrawal of labour could force the bourgeoisie to abdicate power.[50] The events of 1905 in Russia had demonstrated that mass strikes, no matter how powerful, were not a substitute for the taking of state power, and that at a certain point an insurrection would be necessary to resolve a revolutionary situation in the favour of the proletariat. As a tactic however, the mass strike could be used for greater purposes than those for which the mere "demonstration"-type strike was employed by the Western labour movement in this era.

Luxemburg's central argument in The Mass Strike was that the class struggle cannot be arbitrarily divided into mutually exclusive arenas; the economic and political struggles in particular had to be conceived of as a unity.[51] The other major point Luxemburg made here was that a mass strike could not be engineered at the whim of any leadership, but was an organic outgrowth of the mass movement.[52] She did not, however, by any means support the spontaneist/syndicalist positions attributed to her by some later commentators, notably by Stalinists.[53]

The issues raised by the 1905 revolution in Russia also led to an increasing rift between Luxemburg and the revolutionary left on the one hand, and the leading "centre" faction within the SPD, on the other. Luxemburg's personal relationship with Karl Kautsky, in particular, cooled at this time. She came to recognise the vacillating character of Kautsky, despite the latter's formal adherence to revolutionary Marxism, well before the future leaders of the Third International.[54] Lenin, for instance, held Kautsky in high regard, considering him to be a master of theoretical Marxism, until August 1914, when World War I broke out.[55]

Struggle against imperialist war and the collapse of the Second International

The war clouds gathering over Europe in the years before 1914 brought the issues of imperialism and militarism to the centre of attention in the Second International, and in the SPD in particular. At the Stuttgart congress of the Second International in 1907, Luxemburg and Lenin appended a strongly worded clause to an anti-war resolution: "Should war break out in spite of all this, it is their [i.e. the working classes and their parliamentary representatives] duty to intercede for its speedy end, and to strive with all their power to make use of the violent economic and political crisis brought about by the war to rouse the people, and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule."[56]

Luxemburg had no illusions as to the possibility of avoiding war through reliance on international arbitration, peace resolutions, disarmament conferences and the like. She recognised that militarism and war were endemic in 20th century capitalism and could only be eliminated through the forcible intervention of the revolutionary proletariat.[57]

When war finally broke out in August 1914, Rosa found herself isolated along with only a few other German (and European) socialist internationalists. The collapse of the Second International, and the passing over of the SPD into the camp of the imperialist bourgeoisie came as a rude shock to her, although not perhaps as great as the shock to Lenin and those not so closely acquainted with the advanced state of decay of the German party.[58]

The so-called Junius Pamphlet was the major statement of the internationalist opposition in wartime Germany, and was written by Luxemburg during a term of imprisonment imposed upon her by the German Hohenzollern state.[59] The pamphlet deals primarily with the arguments employed by the opportunists and social chauvinists to justify their support for the aims of German imperialism. Brushing aside their apologetics, she posed the central issue sharply: socialism or barbarism -- these were the choices facing humanity. "The triumph of imperialism leads to the destruction of culture, sporadically during a modern war, and forever, if the period of world wars that has just begun is allowed to take its damnable course to the last ultimate consequence."[60] The cessation of the class struggle by the leaderships of the proletariat had "generously delivered the working class into the hands of the enemy for the duration of the war".[61]

1918 German revolution and 1919 Spartakus uprising

Although the Junius Pamphlet shined as a beacon of internationalism from the dark pit of national chauvinism, there were a few points left either unanswered or dealt with incorrectly. Lenin published a review of the pamphlet which picked some of these up.[62] Luxemburg had held in the Junius Pamphlet that "the great historic hour itself creates the forms that will carry the revolutionary movements to a successful outcome, creates and improvises new weapons, enriches the arsenal of the people with weapons unknown and unheard of by the parties and their leaders".[63] In November 1918 the German Revolution began. Across Germany workers' councils sprang up and demonstrated decisively that this form of proletarian organisation, first in evidence in the 1905 Russian revolution, and then again in 1917 in that country, was to be a primary weapon in the working-class arsenal.[64] Luxemburg's assessment, which had strong overtones of spontaneism, was thus far proven correct. The German proletariat did express its mass will through the creation of these instruments of dual power. However, the corresponding political consciousness -- which in the Russian case had been provided, after a prolonged struggle from February to October 1917, by the Bolshevik party -- was not there in Germany in 1918-19.[65] The German councils were dominated by class-collaborationist (SPD) or centrist (U.SPD) groupings, which rapidly resolved to effectively dissolve these revolutionary organs into the bourgeois republican constitution of Weimar.[66]

In the last year of her life, Rosa Luxemburg's political views developed against a hectic background of revolutionary upsurge in eastern and central Europe. Her initial assessment of the Russian October Revolution, published in the early 1920s, several years after her death, was enthusiastic though not uncritical: "All the revolutionary honour and capacity which western social democracy lacked were represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honour of international socialism."[67] The criticisms with which Luxemburg qualified this basic assessment have of course been utilised ad nauseam by those who would wish to bowdlerise her contribution, and reduce her to the dimensions of an ordinary petty-bourgeois democrat. But, as C. Wright Mills points out: "She saw the pluses as well as the minuses of the Revolution, but she felt that the pluses far outweighed the minuses."[68]

It is clear that on the questions of Bolshevik agrarian policy ("land to the peasants") and the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly, Luxemburg was not clearly aware of the nature of, nor the circumstances surrounding, these policies. She appeared to be unaware of the formulated alliance between proletariat and peasantry upon which the October victory rested, and unaware of the constitutional position of the soviets and their incompatibility with a bourgeois Constituent Assembly.[69] She criticised the national policy of the Bolsheviks using similar arguments to those she had used earlier. There is some evidence that Luxemburg revised some of these opinions later on.[70]

The catastrophe of the Spartakus uprising in January 1919, which led to the destruction of the flower of the German revolutionary movement, was not in fact sanctioned politically by Rosa Luxemburg.[71] Nevertheless, once the decision to mount the insurrection was made, against her will, Luxemburg of course supported it to the hilt.[72]

A few weeks before "Spartakus Week", she had delivered a speech to the founding convention of the German Communist Party (Spartakus League). In it she had reviewed the history of the pre-war Second International, declaring that "the fourth of August did not come like thunder out of a clear-blue sky; what happened on the fourth of August was not a chance turn of affairs, but was the logical outcome of all that the German socialists had been doing day after day for many years".[73] Rosa Luxemburg recognised the necessity of a period of peaceful persuasion to win a majority of the working class to the program of the transfer of power to the workers' councils. The triumph of ultra-left adventurism within the young German Communist Party was in some ways a cruel punishment for her belated recognition of the need for an independent mass revolutionary party. Her death, at the hands of the Social Democratic Party, robbed the young German communist movement of a leader who could have altered the outcome of the series of catastrophic events to come. It robbed the international working-class movement of one of its most priceless leaders.

Luxemburg's last written words provide her epitaph: "`Order reigns in Berlin!' You stupid lackeys! Your 'order' is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will rear its head once more and, to your horror, will proclaim, with trumpets blazing: 'I was, I am, I will be!'"[74]

[Graham Milner is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Perth, Western Australia.]


1. For two accounts and interpretations of the radicalisation see Paul Rockwell, "How We Became Revolutionaries", in Tariq Ali (ed.), The New Revolutionaries (New York, 1969) pp. 283-302 and The Worldwide Radicalization of Youth and the Tasks of the Fourth International (New York, 1969). See also Dick Howard's introduction to his edition of Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg (New York, 1971) pp. 9-27 and Robert Looker's introduction to his edition of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political Writings (London, 1972) pp. 54-55.

2. Isaac Deutscher regarded his own relationship to the official communist movement as that of a "heretic", to be distinguished from "renegades" of the stripe of Louis Fischer and Arthur Koestler. See "The Ex-Communists's Conscience" in Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays (London, 1969) pp. 9-22 and also Jorge Semprun's preface to Fernando Claudin, The Communist movement: From Comintern to Cominform (Harmondsworth, 1975) pp. 1-5.

3. The point is perhaps made best by Georg Lukacs: "The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg" in History and Class Consciousness (London, 1971): "It is characteristic of the unity of theory and practice in the life work of Rosa Luxemburg that the unity of victory and defeat, individual fate and total process is the main thread running through her theory and her life", p. 44.

4. "The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice", Karl Marx: Early Writings (Harmondsworth, 1975) p. 422.

5. Paul Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (London, 1940), pp. 13-17; J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (Oxford, abridged ed., 1969), pp. 31-34; K.J. Tarbuck, "Rosa Luxemburg: A Biographical Sketch", in International Marxist Review (December, 1971), p. 67.

6. See George Novack, "How Can the Jews Survive?", in Young Socialist, Socialist Youth Alliance publication, Sydney (July 1977), p. 12.

7. Poland had last been partitioned among the competing powers in 1795. Russian Poland intermittently received some representative autonomy within the tsarist empire. See David Thomson, Europe Since Napoleon (Harmondsworth, rev. ed., 1966), pp. 50, 477-78.

8. Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work, p. 35.

9. See Luxemburg's assessment of the "Proletariat" party: "In Memory of the Proletariat Party", in Howard (ed.), Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, pp.168-215 and also Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, pp. 28-31.

10. Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work, p. 35.

11. The Polish Socialist Party was denounced by Luxemburg as a social patriotic party because of its almost exclusive concern with the Polish national struggle.

12. The name of the party indicated acceptance of Poland's position within the tsarist empire: the SDKpil and the left wing of the PPS later united to form the Polish Communist Party.

13. For a full account see Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, ch. 3, passim.

14. Lenin's writings on the national question, which are couched partly in the form of polemics against Luxemburg's views, constitute an indispensable contribution to Marxist discussion on this issue: see "The National Programme of the R.S.D.L.P.", Collected Works (Moscow, 1964), vol. 19, pp. 539-45; "Critical remarks on the National Question", vol. 20, pp. 17-51; "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination", vol. 20, pp. 393-454; "The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination Summed Up", vol. 20, pp. 320-61. See also J.V. Stalin, "Marxism and the National Question" (excerpt), in Bruce Franklin (ed.), The Essential Stalin: Major Theoretical Writings 1905-1952 (New York, 1972), pp. 54-84.

15. See Frederick Engels, "What Have the Working Classes to do with Poland?", in David Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx, The First International and After: Political Writings (Harmondsworth, 1974), vol. 3, pp. 378-88; Marx and Engels, "For Poland", ibid., pp. 388-93.

16. See Fernbach's "Introduction", ibid., pp. 64-68.

17. "The Polish question at the International Congress in London", in H.B. Davis (ed.), The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg (New York, 1976), pp. 49-60. See the review of this selection of articles by George Breitman, Socialist Worker (Socialist Workers Party [Democratic Socialist Perspective], Sydney, May-June, 1977), pp. 58-61.

18. Ibid., p. 58.

19. "The National Question and Autonomy", ibid, pp. 101-288, 110-11. It is useful to compare Luxemburg's rejection of national rights as abstract bourgeois conceptions with her ready commitment to recognise political rights in other instances. In a 1912 speech on "Women's Suffrage and the Class Struggle" she refers continuously to "union and assembly rights" and to the "political right to vote", see Howard, (ed.), Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, pp. 216-22. It is possible that the heat generated by factional disputes within the Polish socialist movement tended to distort Luxemburg's position on the right of nations to self-determination.

20. Two excellent general discussions of the national question from a Marxist perspective are Michael Lowy, "Marxists and the National Question", in New Left Review (March-April, 1976), pp. 81-100 and Dave Holmes, "Marxism and the National Question", in Socialist Worker (Socialist Workers Party [Democratic Socialist Perspective], Sydney, May-June, 1977) pp. 22-38.

21. Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work, ch. 3, passim; Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, ch.4, passim.

22. For accounts of this controversy, see Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism (London, 1962) and Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905-1917 (New York, 1965), pp. 16-24.

23. In Reform or Revolution, Luxemburg described Evolutionary Socialism as "the first attempt to give a theoretic base to the opportunist currents common in the social democracy": Mary-Alice Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York, 1970), p. 86.

24. This document, known as the Erfurt Programme and drafted by Karl Kautsky, was adopted shortly after the party emerged from a period of illegality (under the Anti-Socialist Laws). See Kautsky, The Class Struggle (New York, 1910).

25. The parliamentary strength of the SPD increased steadily in the pre-war period until the party held the largest number of seats in the the Reichstag of any individual party.

26. The political concessions made by the ruling classes in Wilhelmine Germany did not extend any real power to the labour movement. The Reichstag was advisory, and the executive (i.e. the Kaiser and his camarilla) had the effective power. Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, described the German empire as "a State which is no more than a military despotism and a police state, bureaucratically carpentered, embellished with parliamentary forms and disguised by an admixture of feudalism although already under the influence of the bourgeoisie": in Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx, The First International and After, p. 356.

27. The southern provincial party organisation was deeply saturated in reformist practice and ideology. The southern wing claimed exceptional rights to justify its consistent voting for budgets in provincial bourgeois legislatures, against party principles. This wing formed a major base of support, along with the trade unions, for revisionism. See Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905-17, pp. 7-16.

28. See Richard N. Hunt, German Social Democracy 1918-1933 (New York, 1964), pp. 10-11. Leon Trotsky, in "The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (Transitional Programme)", which is in Documents of the Fourth International: The Formative Years (1933-40) (New York, 1973), wrote: "Classical Social democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its programme into two parts independent of each other: the minimum programme, which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum programme no bridge existed. And indeed Social democracy has no need of such a bridge, since the word 'socialism' is used only for holiday speechifying", p. 183. Karl Korsch developed the view in the 1920s that the fundamental problem with Second International Marxism was its positivism and fatalism -- a product of the rupture between theory and practice. In this way Engels was consigned to oblivion as a vulgar positivist, and even Marx's writings of the post-1848 period were rendered suspect. See Korsch's Marxism and Philosophy (London, 1971). A useful critique of the "praxis" ideology is developed by George Novack in his essay, "In Defence of Engels", in Socialist Worker, no. 1 (Sydney, March, 1977), pp. 33-44.

29. See the excerpts from Evolutionary Socialism, in A.Fried and R. Sanders (eds.), Socialist Thought: A Documentary History (New York, 1964), pp. 424-33.

30. Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p. 36.

31. The following famous passage in Marx's Capital, vol. 1, illustrates graphically the classical vision of capitalist collapse: "While there is ... a progressive diminution in the number of the capitalist magnates, there occurs a corresponding increase in the mass of poverty, oppression, enslavement, degeneration, and exploitation; but at the same time there is a steady intensification of the wrath of the working class, a class which grows ever more numerous, and is disciplined, unified, organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist method of production. Capitalist monopoly becomes a fetter upon the method of production which has flourished with it and under it. The centralisation of the means of production and the socialisation of labour reach a point where they prove incompatible with their capitalist husk. This bursts asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated." (London, 1930, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. 2 vols), vol. 2, p. 846.

32. "Reform or Revolution", in Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p. 61. Bernstein's abandonment of dialectics and his retreat to Kantian ethical absolutes was a significant corollary to his overall rejection of the position of Marx, who had held that "the working class is revolutionary or it is nothing": "Marx to Schweitzer, February 13, 1865", in Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx, The First International and After, p. 148.

33. Reform or Revolution, p. 71.

34. Ibid., p. 75.

35. Ibid., pp. 81-2.

36. The formal rejection of Bernsteinism did not, of course, mean that the social forces that were reflected by Bernstein's views were defeated. In fact opportunist practice developed apace in the German movement (and in many other Second International sections) especially in the trade union bureaucracy -- always the mainstay of reformism -- but also in the burgeoning party bureaucracy itself. A rift opened in the German movement between the Kautskyan formalist-Marxists at the helm, and the revolutionary internationalist left wing led by Luxemburg. On the situation in the Second International, see James Joll, The Second International: 1889-1914 (London, 1955), ch. 4, passim; Julius Braunthal, History of the International 1864-1914 (London, 1966) ch. 17, 18, passim. On the SPD party bureaucracy and its implications as a "model" for modern mass parties, see Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (New York, 1962; orig. ed., 1915). It is worth noting, however, that conservative, sociological views such as Michels' were developed above all to refute Marx's projection of the possibility of a classless, non-elite-ridden, society, see Tom Bottomore, Elites and Society (Harmondsworth, 1966) pp. 17-18.

37. "Socialist Crisis in France", in Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p. 102.

38. For good accounts of the origins and early development of the Russian Marxist movement, see Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 (London, 1970), chapters 1-4 passim, and E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923 (Harmondsworth, 1960), Part 1.

39. Lenin's conception of organisation saw the revolutionary party as the dialectical link between theory and practice. See Ernest Mandel, "The Leninist Theory of Organisation; its Relevance for Today", in Robin Blackburn (ed.), Revolution and Class Struggle: A Reader in Marxist Politics (London, 1977), pp. 78-136 and Class Consciousness and the Leninist Party (Colombo, 1970). See also Lukacs, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought (London, 1970), ch. 3. The flexibility of the relationship between democracy and centralism in Lenin's organisational conception is explored in Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London, 1975).

40. Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, pp. 112-30. See "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Reply by N. Lenin to Rosa Luxemburg", Collected Works, vol. 7, pp. 474-85 for Lenin's riposte.

41. The term "spontaneism" should be qualified. Luxemburg was not an anarcho-syndicalist as some have maintained. Richard Gombin, for example, sees her as the initiator of the council-communist tradition, primarily through her "anti-vanguardist" assessment of revolutionary mass action and leadership. See The Origins of Modern Leftism (Harmondsworth, 1975), pp. 80-81. This goes too far: at no stage did Luxemburg abandon her position of support for revolutionary leadership and a Marxist party; she sought to eliminate the choking blockage of bureaucratic formalism and routinism obtruding between the mass revolutionary energy of the proletariat and the possibility of its expression through the leading bodies of the labour movement.

42. "What is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement", Collected Works, vol. 5, pp. 347-528; "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (The Crisis in Our Party", Collected Works, vol. 7, pp. 203-425.

43. Cited in C. Wright Mills, The Marxists (Harmondsworth, 1967), p. 148.

44. For Trotsky's position, see A.Carlo, "Trotsky and the Organizational Problem", in Critique: A Journal of Soviet Studies and Socialist Theory (Winter, 1976-77), pp. 19-31. Trotsky is quoted as having stated during his last exile: "I wrote a brochure in 1904, `Our Organizational Tasks' in which I developed some views on the question of organization quite similar to those of Rosa Luxemburg... nonetheless all my later experience has shown me that in this controversy Lenin was right against Luxemburg and against myself", p. 19.

45. Braunthal, History of the International 1864-1914, pp. 298-300; George Novack et al., The First Three Internationals; Their History and Lessons (New York, 1974), pp. 55-57; James Joll, The Second International 1889-1914 (London, rev. ed, 1974), pp. 129-31.

46. For the impact of the 1905 Russian revolution on the German labour movement see Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905-1917, ch. 2, passim. The central position of the mass strike in the Russian events of 1905 is brought out brilliantly in Trotsky's 1905 (Harmondsworth, 1973).

47. For accounts of Luxemburg's role in the 1905 events see Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work, ch. 6; Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, pp. 216-46.

48. Schorske, German Social Democracy, ch. 2. The Mannheim (1906) congress of the SPD marked a victory for the conservative trade union leaders. Luxemburg scored the results of the party leadership's capitulation. See "Two Methods of Trade Union Policy", Looker (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political Writings, pp. 141-47.

49. George Lichtheim, A Short History of Socialism (London, 1970), pp. 220-21; Leslie Derfler, Socialism Since Marx (London, 1973), p. 67.

50. See George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Movements and Ideas (Harmondsworth, 1963), pp. 249-50. Note also Engels' critique of anarchist tactics in Spain, which was cited as orthodoxy by many Marxists of the Second International: "The Bakuninists at Work: an Account of the Spanish Revolt of 1873", in Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism: Selected Writings by Marx, Engels, Lenin (New York, 1972), pp. 128-52.

51. "The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions", in Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, pp. 181-90.

52. Ibid., pp. 156-62.

53. See Trotsky, "Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg!", in George Breitman, Sarah Lovell

(eds.), Writings of Leon Trotsky: 1932 (New York, 1973), pp. 131-43, and "Luxemburg and the Fourth International", in Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Appendix, pp. 451-55. George Lichtheim's claim that Luxemburg's views were "in part animated by a species of Syndicalist romanticism" seems particularly extreme: Marxism (London, 2nd ed., 1964), p. 319. For a reasonably good discussion of Marxist trade union tactics, dealing in part with the 1905 experience, see Perry Anderson, "The Limits and Possibilities of Trade Union Action", in Robin Blackburn and Alexander Cockburn (eds.), The Incompatibles: Trade Union Militancy and the Consensus (Harmondsworth, 1967), pp. 263-80.

54. See Trotsky's account of a meeting he had with Luxemburg and Kautsky shortly after the 1905 revolution in My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Harmondsworth, 1975), p. 220. Kautsky's character was assessed by Lukacs in the 1920s: see "Bernstein's triumph: Notes on the Essays Written in Honour of Karl Kautsky's Seventieth Birthday", in Lukacs, Political Writings 1919-29 (London, 1972), pp. 127-33; see also Trotsky, On Engels and Kautsky (New York, 1969).

55. Trotsky, "Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg", in George Breitman, Sarah Lovell (eds.) Writings of Leon Trotsky: 1932 (New York, 1973), pp. 133-34.

56. Joll, The Second International, Appendix, p. 208. Luxemburg herself made a major contribution to the Marxist theory of imperialism, attempting to draw the phenomena of early 20th century world capitalism into an overall synthesis. Her study of imperialism, The Accumulation of Capital, was published in 1911. For a discussion of the book's significance in economic thought see Michael Barratt-Brown, The Economics of Imperialism (Harmondsworth, 1974), pp. 64-72.

57. See Luxemburg's "Peace Utopias", in Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, pp. 250-56.

58. On the collapse of the International see Joll, The Second International, pp. 67-72.

59. For the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of the Junius Pamphlet, see Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work, pp. 245-55; Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, pp. 386-88.

60. "The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis in the German Social Democracy", in Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p. 269.

61. Ibid., p. 296.

62. See Lenin, "The Junius Pamplet", Collected Works, vol. 22, pp. 305-19. Lenin pointed out that, although "Junius" (i e. Luxemburg) had scored the capitulation of the SPD leadership, no analysis of the nature of opportunism -- particularly Kautskyism -- was made. He also criticised the position of the pamphlet on the national question.

63. Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p. 315.

64. On workers'councils, Antonio Gramsci's comments are of some importance. See his Soviets in Italy (Nottingham, Institute for Workers' Control, n.d.).

65. On the decisive role of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution see Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (London, 1967).

66. For a general account of the German Revolution see Richard M. Watt, The Kings Depart: The German Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles 1918-19 (Harmondsworth, 1973). See also Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work, ch. 13.

67. Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p. 375.

68. The Marxists, p. 147. Examples of conservative or opportunist usage of Luxemburg's differences with the Bolsheviks are: Adam B. Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks (London, 1969), pp. 651-52; D. Smith, Left and Right in Twentieth Century Europe (London, 1970), pp. 10-11. Bertram D. Wolfe published an edition of Luxemburg's Revolutionary Socialist Organisation, alongside her article on the Russian October Revolution, under the title The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism (New York, 1961).

69. See Lukacs, "Critical Observations on Rosa Luxemburg's Critique of the Russian Revolution", in History and Class Consciousness, pp. 272-94.

70. See Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p. 366.

71. Frolich claims that the whole affair "was carefully prepared and cunningly launched by the leaders of the counter-revolution", see Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work, p. 316. See also A. Ramos Oliveira, A People's History of Germany (London, 1942), chapters 15 and 16, and Helmut Gruber (ed.), International Communism in the Era of Lenin: A Documentary History (New York, 1972), pp. 100-104.

72. See Clara Zetkin's memoir of these events cited in Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work, pp. 323-34: "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."

73. "Speech to the Founding Convention of the German Communist Party", in Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, pp. 400-11.

74. "Order Reigns in Berlin", in Looker (ed..), Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political Writings, pp. 300-6.


Another predictable, tedious "Lenin knows best" ideological evaluation of the contribution of Luxemburg. A contemporary Marxist revolutionary should focus most of her/his attention on why the Bolshevik style of revolution failed and had to fail as a socialist/communist revolution but succeeded admirably as a Stalinist one.

Whilst laying stress on Rosa Luxemburg's immense talents as a Marxist theoretician, active socialist politician, and socialist publicist, it would clearly be remiss of any critic to overlook the mistakes and errors in her formulations and tactical prescriptions. It would be more appropriate for you to draw a contrast between the successful Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia in 1917 and the failed German Revolution of 1919, than start bruiting about the idea that Bolshevism/Leninism led to Stalinism. There is an excellent essay by John Rees in 'International Socialism' No. 52 (Autumn, 1991) defending the Russian October Revolution and Leninism: "In Defence of October" pp.3-79

- Graham Milner

As I understand it Luxemburg was a revolutionary Marxist from her earliest involvement in the Polish labour movement (the 'Proletariat' party). Both of the biographies of Rosa Luxemburg by John Nettl and Paul Froelich provide good accounts of her early activities as a revolutionary socialist. Her university studies in Switzerland would have consolidated her knowledge and understanding of social and economic theory: I believe she also studied life sciences there. As you would know, Luxemburg became a major figure in the German labour movement when she went to live in Germany. She was also active in the Russian labour movement, and was an active participant in the 1903 RSDLP congress, and took part in the 1905 Revolution in Russia.