Rosa Luxemburg’s Criticism of Lenin’s Ultra Centralistic Party Concept and of the Bolshevik Revolution

Lenin Memorial in Eastern Berlin 1970 (Source: Bundesarchiv/Wikipedia)

In 1922 a heated controversy on Rosa Luxemburg’s manuscript “The Russian Revolution” arose in the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and in the Communist International (KI). Paul Levi, a close friend of Rosa and since March 1919 leader of the KPD, criticised publicly the participation of the Central Committee in the March 1921 uprising in Middle Germany[1] and called it a putsch especially since some Russian advisors from the KI had urged the action. Already expelled from the KPD he published at the end of 1921 the manuscript “The Russian Revolution” by Rosa Luxemburg using it as a propaganda weapon against his opponents. On the one hand Levi emphasized Luxemburg’s critical remarks on the Bolshevik policy in 1918. On the other hand Luxemburg’s old friends Clara Zetkin and Adolf Warski assured that Rosa had given up her critical position against Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the last weeks of her life between the German November Revolution 1918 and her death on January 15, 1919.[2] Since 1922 this discussion was continued many times in all variations with the culmination in 1931 when Stalin condemned Luxemburg and her followers as half-Mensheviks. After World War II this negative attitude was smoothed slowly in the European communist countries (mainly in East Germany) especially since the 1960s and more since the 1970s while in the western European countries Rosa Luxemburg was sometimes discriminated as a Bolshevik communist and sometimes used as propaganda weapon against state communism.[3]

Since the cold war is over now and most relevant archives of the former communist states are open for all scholars we have the chance to collect, check and evaluate the facts on Rosa Luxemburg’s opinion concerning Lenin’s party concept on a basis of rich materials.

“Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy” (1904) and
“Credo: On the State of Russian Social Democracy” (1911)

Already in her 1904 essay “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy” Luxemburg makes clear the fundamental difference between her basic democratic position and Lenin’s ultra centralistic party concept. She sharply criticises Lenin’s notion “the Central Committee emerges as the real active nucleus of the party; all the remaining organizations are merely its executive instruments.”[4] In contrast to this Luxemburg emphasizes the role of the proletarian masses: “The social democratic movement is the first movement in the history of class societies to be premised in its every aspect and in its whole development on the organization and the independent direct action of the masses.”[5] For Luxemburg the ultra centralistic 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 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.”[6] 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’.”[7]

In a more moderate way she repeats her critique of Lenin’s party concept in her long 1911 manuscript with a plea for the unity of the Russian Social Democratic Party which Rosa Luxemburg’s SDKPiL (Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania), the Bolsheviks, several Menshevik groups, the Trotsky partisans, the Jewish Bund and some more socialist groups belonged to.[8] She characterizes Lenin’s inner party policy as “inclination to resolve problems and difficulties in the development of the Russian Party mechanistically, with fists and knives …”[9] excluding the inner party opponents without discussion. In contrast to Lenin’s emphasis on organizational solutions Rosa Luxemburg favours the political discussion on tactical and strategic socialist issues and goals as a necessary clarifying process.[10] On the one hand Luxemburg sees a “significant gulf” separating her party the SDKPiL from the Mensheviks[11] on the other hand she repeats that like in 1904 and again in the Russian Revolution of 1905/06 her party is “in serious opposition to the Bolshevik line … against the organizational centralism of Lenin and his friends, because they wanted to secure a revolutionary direction for the proletarian movement by swaddling the party, in a purely mechanistic fashion, with an intellectual dictator from the central party Executive.”[12]

“The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions” (1906)
Luxemburg’s concept of the role of a socialist party and the masses was also in contrast to the bureaucratic attitude of the German Social Democratic Party and of the German unions as we can recognize from her booklet “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions” published at the end of 1906. As conclusions from her personal experience as an activist in the first Russian revolution of 1905/06 she confirms the importance of mass actions – especially the mass strike - and defines the essentials for her further political writings and activities: 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.

As the experience of the first Russian revolution had shown the spontaneity of the masses played an important role for the rise and decline of a revolutionary development.[13] Putting the emphasis on the spontaneous action of the masses and on a forward driving agitation, not on the organizational party work and on a given order of the leadership Luxemburg was in contrast to the bureaucratic attitude of the German Social Democratic Party und the German unions and also – concerning the role of the masses – in contrast to Lenin’s ultra centralistic attitude.

The Junius Pamphlet – “The Crisis in German Social Democracy” (1915)
Even more significant for her basic democratic conviction are her statements in the Junius Pamphlet with its convincing and impressive plea for a socialist peace policy which she wrote in the spring of 1915: “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.”[14]

Manuscript “The Russian Revolution” (September/October 1918)
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 manuscript on the Russian revolution. 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…”[15] 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.”[16] 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.[17] And she pleads for freedom of press, of free association and assemblage as essentials for the “rule of the broad mass of the people…”[18]

It is evident that Luxemburg‘s basic democratic arguments go in a straight line from her criticism in the 1904 essay “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy”, in the 1906 mass strike pamphlet, in the 1915 Junius booklet to the 1918 manuscript on the Russian revolution.

Three important questions remain:

  • Did the other leaders of the “Spartacus Group” (from November 11, 1918 on named “Spartacus League”), the group around Rosa Luxemburg, the later Communist Party of Germany, share her criticism on the Bolshevik policy?
  • Did Luxemburg change her critical attitude towards the political practice of the Bolshevik in the months after having written “The Russian Revolution”?
  • Did Rosa Luxemburg after the Russian October Revolution in 1917 show hostility against the Bolsheviks as sometimes assumed or did she practise critical solidarity to the Russian comrades?

The Attitude of the other Spartacus Leaders
It is well known that Clara Zetkin and Franz Mehring publicly defended the Bolsheviks in many essays.[19] Paul Levi opposed Luxemburg’s critical view in September and October 1918 while in the 1920s he used Luxemburg’s arguments against the communist in Germany and in Moscow.[20] Karl Liebknecht sent a clandestine letter from his place of confinement in summer of 1918 asking not to publish his remarks critical of the Bolsheviks.[21] Leo Jogiches Luxemburg’s personal and political friend since the early 1890s and the important Spartacus leader during war time expressed his differences with the Bolsheviks very clearly to a Polish comrade in late November 1918.[22] And Käte Duncker another very engaged intelligent leader expresses her disappointment in a letter to her husband: “.. but a system, which is only able to keep its power, in declaring the terror as a matter of principle; a system in which non concerned persons are shot as hostages, this cannot survive...”[23]As Angelica Balabanova the secretary of the left International Socialist Commission experienced during her Berlin stay in the middle of October 1918 privately the Spartacus leaders disagreed with the terror in Russia.[24] These facts show that Luxemburg was not isolated within the Spartacus leadership because of her critical attitude towards the Bolsheviks.

The Question of Luxemburg’s Possible Change of View
In the already mentioned heated debate in the 1920s Rosa Luxemburg’s old Polish friend and political colleague Adolf Warski published a letter he had received from her in December 1918 in which she explains the withdrawal of her objections towards the Bolshevik policy. But this fragment of a letter is quoted by Warski by heart [!!!] while the original text was never published. Thus, it cannot be used as a subject of serious scientific research or as proof of Luxemburg’s change of mind.[25] But there is an undated handwritten report by her Polish party comrade H. Walecki a founding member of the Communist Party of Poland who had long talks with Rosa Luxemburg at the end of November or the beginning of December 1918 in Berlin. He tells: “She emphasized again the issues separating her [from the Bolsheviks] on the agrarian question, the question of nationalities, and the question of terror.”[26]

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.[27] Just for 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.[28] Altogether we see that Luxemburg kept her basic democratic thread even in the stormy hectic weeks of the German revolution.

Hostility against the Bolsheviks or critical solidarity with the Russian comrades?
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.[29] 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.[30] 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[31] 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.[32] 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.[33] Looking at Luxemburg’s writings and letters in 1918 it seems that 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.”[34]

Final Remarks:
Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of Lenin’s ultra centralistic party concept in 1904 and in 1918 was not an occasional polemic due to a special political situation but has its origin in the fundamental differences on the way to realize socialism. Otherwise Luxemburg recognized that the Bolsheviks had made as the first party the successful attempt for a socialist revolution. And she was hoping that the Bolsheviks would change the methods she criticised if the European or at least the German revolution were to succeed. 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.

It is a tragedy for the development of the socialist or communist movement (probably even for the European and world history) that Luxemburg’s way of socialism was strongly weakened in 1919 and in the following years by her murder and the murder of many of her comrades by the reactionary forces in Germany, and further on also by the Stalinist terror. But Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas of a humanist and libratory socialism could not be killed, they are still alive.

[1] Original: Mitteldeutschland, the region around Halle and Merseburg, by then at the heart of Germany, now eastern Germany.

[2] Rosa Luxemburg: Die russische Revolution. Eine kritische Würdigung, aus dem Nachlaß, hrsg. und eingeleitet von Paul Levi, Berlin 1922; the text of the original manuscript in: Rosa Luxemburg: Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 4, August 1914 bis Januar 1919, hrsg. von der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Gesellschaftsanalyse und Politische Bildung e. V., wissenschaftliche Betreuung der 6. Auflage: Annelies Laschitza, 6., überarbeitete Auflage, Berlin 2000 (further quoted: Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 4), pp. 332-365. Adolf Warski: Rosa Luxemburgs Stellung zu den taktischen Problemen der Revolution, Hamburg 1922 (further quoted: Warski). Clara Zetkin: Um Rosa Luxemburgs Stellung zur russischen Revolution, Hamburg 1922. Peter Nettl: Rosa Luxemburg, Köln/Berlin 1965, pp.752-755, also: pp. 680-682.

[3] Annelies Laschitza: Zum Umgang mit Rosa Luxemburg in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, in: BZG – Beiträge zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, Jg. 33 (1991), H.4, pp. 435-452; Klaus Kinner: Die Luxemburg-Rezeption in KPD und Komintern, in: Rosa Luxemburg im internationalen Diskurs. Internationale Rosa-Luxemburg-Gesellschaft in Chicago, Tampere, Berlin und Zürich (1998-2000), hrsg. von Narihiko Ito, Annelies Laschitza, Ottokar Luban, Berlin 2002, pp. 191-200; Ottokar Luban: Die Stellung der SED zu Rosa Luxemburg, in: ibd., pp. 156-160; Gilbert Badia: Rosa-Luxemburg-Rezeption im 20. Jahrhundert, in: ibd., pp.174-190; Hermann Weber: Rosa Luxemburg zwischen Ost und West: Instrumentalisierung im Kalten Krieg bis 1990, in: Mitteilungsblatt des Instituts für soziale Bewegungen [Ruhruniversität Bochum], Nr.29/2003, pp. 7- 18.

[4] The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis & Kevin B. Anderson, New York 2004 (further quoted: Rosa Luxemburg Reader), p. 250; Rosa Luxemburg: Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 1, 1893-1903, 2. Halbband, hrsg. von der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Gesellschaftsanalyse und Politische Bildung e. V., wissenschaftliche Betreuung der 7. Auflage: Annelies Laschitza, 7., überarbeitete Auflage, Berlin 2000 (further quoted: Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 1 / 2), pp. 425-426.

[5] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 251; Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 1 / 2, p. 427.

[6] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 256;. Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 1 / 2, pp. 433-434.

[7] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 265; Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 1 / 2, p. 444.

[8] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 266–280; Feliks Tych (ed.): Ein unveröffentlichtes Manuskript von Rosa Luxemburg zur Lage in der russischen Sozialdemokratie, in: IWK – Internationale wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Jg. 27 (1991), H.3, pp. 339-343 (introduction), pp. 344–357.

[9] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p.272.

[10] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 274.

[11] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 270.

[12] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 271.

[13] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, pp.197-199; Rosa Luxemburg: Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 2, 1906 – Juni 1911, hrsg. von der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Gesellschaftsanalyse und Politische Bildung e. V., wissenschaftliche Betreuung der 6. Auflage: Annelies Laschitza, 6., überarbeitete Auflage, Berlin 2004, pp. 132-134, p. 139.

[14] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, pp.328-329; Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 4, pp.148-149.

[15] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 308; Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 4, p. 363.

[16] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 306; Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 4, p. 360.

[17] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 306, p. 309;.Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 4, p. 361, p. 364.

[18] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 304; Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 4, p. 358.

[19] Gilbert Badia: Clara Zetkin. Eine neue Biographie, Berlin 1994, pp. 158-161; Offenes Schreiben Franz Mehrings vom 3. Juni 1918 an die Bolschewiki, in: Dokumente und Materialien zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Reihe II, 1914-1945, Bd. 2: November 1917 - Dezember 1918, hrsg. vom Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, Berlin 1957, pp. 158 – 162.

[20] Sibylle Quack: Geistig frei und niemandes Knecht. Paul Levi / Rosa Luxemburg. Politische Arbeit und persönliche Beziehung. Mit 50 unveröffentlichten Briefen, geringfügig veränderte Taschenbuchausgabe, Frankfurt/Main, Berlin 1986, pp.133 -136, pp.169-176.

[21] Karl Liebknecht to Sophie Liebknecht, July 6, 1918, and August 12, 1918, in: Karl Liebknecht: Gesammelte Reden und Schriften, Bd. IX, Mai 1915 – 15. Januar 1919, hrsg. vom Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, Berlin 1968, p. 545, p. 557.

[22] Russian State Archive for Social Political History [RGASPI], Moscow, fonds 495, opis 124, dello 539, sheet 42 reverse.

[23] Käte Duncker to Hermann Duncker, September 15,.1918, in: Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv, Berlin-Lichterfelde, NY 4445, Nr.141, sheet 147.

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

[25] Warski, p. 6-7; Paul Frölich: Rosa Luxemburg. Gedanke und Tat. Mit einem Nachwort von Iring Fetscher, 4th edition, Frankfurt/Main 1973, p. 298 with annotation 25. Rosa Luxemburg: Gesammelte Briefe, Bd. 6, hrsg. von Annelies Laschitza, Berlin 1993 (further quoted: Rosa Luxemburg: Ges. Briefe, 6), p. 211.

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

[27] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, pp. 349-357; Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 4, pp. 440-449.

[28] 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.

[29] Rosa Luxemburg to Stefan Bratman-Brodowski, September 3, 1918, in: Rosa Luxemburg: Ges. Briefe, 6, pp. 206-208, quotation: p. 207.

[30] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, pp. 289-290, pp. 309-310; Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 4, p. 341, p. 365.

[31] Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 366; Rosa Luxemburg: GW, Bd. 4, p. 496.

[32] Rosa Luxemburg to Lenin, December 20, [1918], in: Rosa Luxemburg: Ges. Briefe, 6, p. 212.

[33] 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

[34] 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.