Rosa Luxemburg’s Concept of Basic Democratic Socialism

Funeral March for Rosa Luxemburg 1919 (Source:

Every year in January between 50.000 and 100.000 people honour Rosa Luxemburg with a march to her grave at a cemetery in Berlin, Germany. In the last several years conferences on Rosa Luxemburg took place not only in Germany but also in other European countries like Finland, Russia, Poland, Switzerland, Italy, USA (1998 in Chicago where Bill Pelz organized the meeting) and even in China and recently in South America. During the last two decades many publications of her writings and biographical works on Luxemburg and her comrades of the Spartacus Group were published in different countries: of course in Germany, but also in Russia, France, the Netherlands, Australia, Brasilia, Argentina, USA, China and Japan.

Why is there so much attention to a female politician who acted 100 years ago and who failed to realize her goals?

I think it is the combination of her fate, her martyrdom, being murdered in January 1919 by counterrevolutionary German troops in command of the a social democratic government, of her characteristics as a steadfast and honest socialist, as an effective orator at mass assemblies and a brilliant convincing Marxist writer.

Most important is her vision of a socialist movement with strictly basic democratic character. In many of her writings and speeches over the years you find as a central theme her fundamental confession: The proletarian masses decide the kind of socialism and the route to it and not the leadership who will give only a wide frame of socialist issues and forward driving short, middle and long term goals.

This leitmotif we already find in her 1904 essay “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy” where Luxemburg makes clear the fundamental difference between her basic democratic position and Lenin’s ultra centralist party concept. For Luxemburg the ultra centralist concept neglects the creativity of the proletarian masses, it is “imbued, not with a positive creative spirit, but with the sterile spirit of the night-watchman state. His [Lenin’s] line of thought is concerned principally with the control of party activity and not with its fertilization, with narrowing and not with broadening, with tying the movement up and not with drawing it together.”[1] Luxemburg concludes her 1904 essay with a phrase which was often used in political debates from the 1920s till the 1950s or even later by anti-Stalinist socialists: “…the mistakes that are made by a truly revolutionary workers’ movement are, historically speaking, immeasurably more fruitful and more valuable than the infallibility of the best possible ‘Central Committee’.”[2]

With her basic democratic concept Luxemburg also was in contrast to the bureaucracy of the German Social Democratic Party and the German unions as her 1906 booklet “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions” shows. Backed by her experiences as a participant of the 1905/06 Russian revolution she tried to convince the rank and file of the German labour movement and its leadership that emphasis on the spontaneous action of the proletarian masses and on a forward driving agitation would play an important role for the rise of a revolutionary development but also for strengthening the workers organization. The party leaders should neither wait passively for a revolutionary development nor should they merely give orders for the start of a mass strike but they must take over the political leadership in encouraging the readiness of the workers with speeches driving things forward.[3] This pleading for an active politics of mass actions was most important because of the growing tendency of the German Social Democratic leadership to became more and more a passive party. On the whole Luxemburg had no success with her suggestions. But under the pressure of the rank and file a few times the German party leadership had to start mass actions.

In the years after the mass strike booklet Luxemburg wrote many similar essays, but most significant for her basic democratic conviction are her statements in the brochure “The Crisis in German Social Democracy” the so-called Junius Pamphlet of 1915, with its convincing and impressive arguments for a socialist peace policy. Let me give some quotations as example: “Revolutions are not ‘made’ and great movements of the people are not produced according to technical recipes that repose in the pockets of the party leaders. Small circles of conspirators may organize a riot for a certain day and a certain hour, can give their small group of supporters the signal to begin. Mass movements in great historical crises cannot be initiated by such primitive measures… The existing degree of tension between the classes, the degree of intelligence of the masses and the degree or ripeness of their spirit of resistance – all these factors, which are incalculable are premises that cannot be artificially created by any party…The great historical 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 unknown and unheard of by the party and its leaders.”[4]

This basic democratic orientation was also the starting point for Luxemburg’s criticism of the Bolshevik policy in Russia in 1918 written down in her famous unfinished manuscript “On the Russian Revolution” (September 1918). For Luxemburg the dictatorship of the proletariat is “the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class – that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses…”[5] And she confirms this view: “The whole mass of the people must take part of it [the development of a socialist society, OL]. Otherwise, socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks, by a dozen intellectuals. Public control is indispensable necessary. Otherwise the exchange of experiences remains only with the closed circles of the officials of the regime. Corruption becomes inevitable.”[6] Therefore Luxemburg rejects “the use of terror in so wide an extent by the Soviet government” especially since the Bolshevik politicians developed it as a theoretical system recommending it to the international proletariat as a socialist model.[7] And she pleads for freedom of press, of free association and assemblage as essentials for the “rule of the broad mass of the people…”[8]

This rejection of the terror in Russia was shared by most of the other Spartacus leaders, as it was observed by Angelica Balabanov, the secretary of the left International Socialist Commission during her Berlin stay in the middle of October 1918.[9] A handwritten report by Henryk Walecki, a Polish Communist leader, confirms that still at the end of November and the beginning of December 1918 Luxemburg and her closest political adviser Leo Jogiches were full of critiques of Bolshevik politics.[10]

But most clearly the Spartacus Program shows that Luxemburg kept her old view concerning the majority principle in a socialist democracy with broad active participation of the proletarian masses. She wrote it in early December 1918 and it was accepted as the program of the KPD at the founding conference at the end of December 1918. She rejects any kind of socialist minority government and the practice of suppression and terror. Proletarian terror should be used only as strictly defensive weapon against counterrevolutionary attacks.[11] Because of these parts of the program concerning the revolutionary power, Paul Frölich — then a follower of Lenin — protested against these sentences at the founding conference of the KPD because he assumed this as a hidden criticism towards the Bolsheviks.[12] Altogether we see that Luxemburg kept her basic democratic thread even in the stormy and hectic weeks of the German revolution.

At the same time, Luxemburg was well aware of the most difficult situation in which the Bolsheviks tried to realize socialism. But in spite of this she saw the necessity to remind them of socialist principles and to criticise their errors. “… but fully to keep silent is impossible,” as she wrote to her Polish comrade Bratman in September 1918.[13] On the other hand in the manuscript on the Russian revolution she praises the Bolsheviks for the first seizure of power by a socialist party to realize socialism hoping that a successful socialist revolution in Central und Western Europe would correct the wrong developments in Russia.[14] These lines in her manuscript on the Russian revolution and later on her appreciation and defence of the Russian revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks in her speech at the KPD founding conference[15] seem to be honest and show Luxemburg’s critical solidarity with the Bolsheviks.

Though rejecting the founding of a Communist International in early 1919 because of the lack of real communist mass parties in central and western Europe the Spartacus leadership communicated with Lenin. In December 1918 Luxemburg and her leading comrades sent their close follower Eduard Fuchs with oral messages to Moscow.[16] This was continued after her death by her comrade Leo Jogiches sending a letter to Lenin in early February 1919 with a report on the KPD development and a request for further financial help.[17] Judging from all of Luxemburg’s writings and letters in 1918 it looks as if Rosa Luxemburg shared Jogiches’ opinion which he expressed in a letter very critical of the Bolsheviks to Sophie Liebknecht in September 1918. There he characterized the socialist Russia governed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks as “a crippled, but yet after all our child.”[18]

Luxemburg and the Bolsheviks had in common the socialist goal but differed in the method of realisation. For Rosa Luxemburg socialism could not be realised except in a process with complete freedom for all proletarians, without suppression of the ones thinking differently. This was for her the implicit prerequisite for assuring the most active and creative participation of the working class in developing a socialist society with equal social, economic and political rights for all citizens.

I think Rosa Luxemburg left us five messages:

  1. Socialism means full democracy: not only political equality but also the economic, social und legal equality (this is the old Marxist program shared by all socialist parties during Rosa Luxemburg’s life time but later on - especially today - mostly forgotten);
  2. Socialism means basic democracy: decisions by full broad participation of the people not mainly by the leaders;
  3. Socialism means humanity and solidarity: no indifference concerning suppression and misery all over the world and no use of suppression by socialists,
  4. The fight against imperialism cannot consist of resolutions alone but consists of a varied row of actions due to the consciousness of the people who are carrying the actions,
  5. Rosa Luxemburg’s summarized main message following a sentence by Friedrich Engels the closest comrade of Karl Marx: there are only two alternatives for mankind: socialism or the development of capitalism to barbarism - there is no third possibility.[19]

[1] The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis & Kevin B. Anderson, New York 2004, p. 256.

[2] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 265, p. 444.

[3] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, pp.197-199.

[4] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, pp.328-329.

[5]Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 308, p. 363.

[6]Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 306. p. 360.

[7] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 306, p. 309.

[8] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 304:

[9] Angelica Balabanova to Lenin, October 19,.[1918], in: RGASPI, Moscow, f. 5, op. 3, d. 80, sheet 2, reverse, and the following page.

[10] RGASPI, Moscow, f. 495, op. 124, d. 539, sheet 41 reverse.

[11] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, pp. 349-357:

[12] Speech by Paul Frölich, in: Die Gründung der KPD. Protokoll und Materialien des Gründungsparteitages der Kommunistischen Partei Deutschlands1918/19. Mit einer Einführung zur angeblichen Erstveröffentlichung durch die SED, hrsg. und eingeleitet von Hermann Weber, Berlin 1993, pp. 202-203.

[13] Rosa Luxemburg to Stefan Bratman-Brodowski, September 3, 1918, in: Rosa Luxemburg: Gesammelte Briefe, Bd. 6, hrsg. von Annelies Laschitza, Berlin 1993, pp. 206-208, quotation: p. 207.

[14] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, pp. 289-290, pp. 309-310.

[15] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 366.

[16] Rosa Luxemburg to Lenin, December 20, [1918], in: Rosa Luxemburg: Gesammelte Briefe, Bd. 6, p. 212.

[17] Leo Jogiches to Lenin, February 4, 1919, in: Ruth Stoljarowa: Vor 80 Jahren wurde Leo Jogiches ermordet. Vier unbekannte oder vergessene Dokumente aus den Jahre 1917-1919, in: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, Jg. 40 (1998), H. 4, pp. 65-82, here: pp. 72-74

[18] Leo Jogiches to Sophie Liebknecht, September 7, 1918, in: Feliks Tych/Ottokar Luban: Die Spartakusführung zur Politik der Bolschewiki. Ein Kassiber Leo Jogiches’ aus dem Gefängnis an Sophie Liebknecht vom 7. September 1918, in: IWK – Internationale wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Jg. 33 (1997), H.1, pp. 92-102, here: p. 100.

[19] See for instance Rosa Luxemburg’s speech at the founding convention of the German communist party (December 31, 1919) in: Hudis/Anderson, Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p.364.