Why it worth reading Rosa Luxemburg a century after her death, was Rosa really an opponent of Lenin and why there was no succesful socialist revolution in Germany – Marie Frederiksen, a Danish Marxist, author of newly published book Revolutionary Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, talks to Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.
More than a hundred years passed since Rosa Luxemburg was murdered in Berlin. Why read her today? What of her legacy remains relevant for left-wingers, given how much has the world changed?
Rosa stated that humanity faced an alternative: socialism or barbarism. And this remains relevant for many decades. Capitalism still exists and still is a system which creates no future for a large party of humanity. Rosa Luxemburg’s valuable legacy consists also of defending genuine Marxist thought within the labour movement, against reformism and opportunism. This is a fight that goes on, too.
More than her writings and studies in economy, I consider her political work as a revolutionary the most valuable. Within the labour movement, Rosa Luxemburg stood against Bernstein’s revisionism. Bernstein and his followers claimed that capitalism could have been reformed, adapted, so that it overcame internal crisis and was not a system of crises anymore. In her brilliant piece Reform and Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg proved that there was no adaptation within capitalism. She prove that it was a system of chaos and crisis. It would never change for the benefit of the working class.
Some of her economical writings can be misunderstood and misread as fatalistic, expecting a final crisis of capitalism that would inevitably lead to its destruction, whereas Marx never said that capitalism was doomed to fall. On the contrary, he said that capitalism must have been conciously overthrown and replaced with socialist system, a system of planned economy. But even if Rosa’s writings might sound fatalistic, her political activities were never so. All her life she fought for a socialist revolution, for a revolutionary movement of working class, for a socialist society. Ultimately, she gave her life for it.
Her attempts, however, failed. Germany did not become the stage of second great socialist revolution. Why?
From my perspective, the key factor was that the Communist Party of Germany was created too late. The German revolution broke out in November 1918, and the Communist Party emerged no sooner than on New Year’s Eve 1918/1918, two months into a revolution! That is quite late to gather forces.
For most of her life, Rosa Luxemburg acted within the SPD, German Social-Democratic Party. Only in 1917, when the party split, she sided with the Independent SPD and later co-founded the Communist Party. While she was active within the SPD, she believed that the revolting masses would be able to push the party leadership into a more radical direction, or create a new, revolutionary leadership. In my opinion, Rosa Luxemburg should have splitted from SPD as soon as she understood what was revisionism and how dangerous was the inner party degeneration. Instead, she criticised them in writing only and formed a loose network of supporters. I think she should have started building a revolutionary organisation around 1905 already, first within the SPD. That would have meant that when a split occured it would have on more clear political lines and on a more solid foundation. A core of educated Marxists with experience in the class struggle could have been built, and be ready when the German revolution broke out. This is more or less what Lenin did in Russia, and what secured the victory of Socialist revolution in Russia. There was the Bolshevik party in Russia, while the German Communist party appeared way too late and was way too small to lead the German workers to victory.
The Spartacists, which were the forerunner of the German Communist Party tried to secure the German revolution suceeding as a socialist revolution. But they had no more than a few thousand members and in a loose network. Some historians estimate that there were no more than 50 Spartacists in Berlin in November 2018 – definitely too few to decide on the course of the events.
Even though the Spartacist Union grouped the most revolutionary forces in Germany, the German revolutionary left was mainly young and unexperienced, hoping to learn by experience with time. It turned out that they were given no time. The key leaders of the party, like Rosa Luxemburg, were murdered no later than two weeks after the party came into being. The party had the head chopped off…
Many left-wingers praise Rosa Luxemburg as a model of democratic socialist, a critic of Lenin, who denounced undemocratic practices of the Bolshevik government and advocated a grassroots working-class democratic society. To what extent did the two revolutionaries actually differ?
The grand Lenin-Rosa difference is a myth.
All Marxists had disagreements and arguments. If people agree on every point, something is definitely wrong and suggests lack of independent reasoning – so yes, they had disagreements. But you can present Lenin and Rosa as antagonists only if you take some quotations out of their context.
The first point of their supposed antagonism is the question of organisation. Before the 1905 revolution in Russia and after the split within Russian Socialdemocratic Party to Menshevik and Bolshevik factions, Rosa Luxemburg supported the Mensheviks. She accused Lenin of striving towards a dictatorship in the party. When the revolution broke out, Rosa Luxemburg came to Kingdom of Poland – then under the tsarist rule – to take part in the events. Captured and imprisoned, she was eventually able to escape and get to Finland, where she met the Bolshevik leaders and they had a lot of discussions. The experience of the revolution had placed her on the same side as the Bolsheviks. After the discussion showed that they agreed on all major point, she gave up her earlier accusations. She says it straighforward: I accused Lenin and his comrades of blanquism, that is, of willing to organise a revolution and capture power by a small group, but I was wrong. She states that they were right to fight for dictatorship of the proletariat during the first Russian revolution, as opposed to Menshevik aims, and she says: I am on their side.
She had one critical point of the Bolsheviks: that they put to focus too much on technical side of revolutionary movement and too little on political work with the masses. This, however, shows from where she came. Being active in the SPD, she could see the reformist degeneration within that party. She was able to see how the SPD leaders came to treat the mass movement, protests and strikes like a hand knife that can be opened or hidden at a given moment. But a mass movement does not work like that! Mass movement means that the masses are moving – you cannot order them to behave in a chosen way. Here I think Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg had, in fact, an agreement. Rosa’s article on general strike is a criticism of German social-democratic leadership, not an attack against Lenin.
Then we have the 1918 brochure on the Russian revolution…
… where Rosa Luxemburg is supposed to criticise the Soviet government and position herself clearly against Lenin’s undemocratic practices. In fact, the brochure was published only after Rosa’s death, without her consent. She wrote the text in prison, as a set of personal notes and thoughts. She was obviously aware of the fact that a full picture of Russian Revolution did not reach the walls of German prison and that her remarks would have to be confronted with reality. She never had the time to write and publish a full account of Russian revolution, though.
And even in that unpublished text Luxemburg writes: Lenin and his comrades saved the honour of world socialist movement! They saved the working class and the movement. Even though she disagrees with the Bolsheviks on certain points, she adds: the Bolsheviks cannot do other than they do, because of circumstances. They took power in an isolated backward country, so the problems they faced could be solved only by international working class, and the German working class in particular. It is our duty, and especially the duty of German social-democratic leaders, she concludes, to help the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution.
Where is, then, the great „conflict” between Lenin and Luxemburg? They were on the same side in key moments. Disagreements they had was rather of secondary character – even another difference they had, on the national question. They disagreed, while standing on the same platform. They both wanted the working class to win, even though they discussed how this would happen, what means should be used on the way to victory.
Was Rosa Luxemburg against Polish independence?
She considered fight for national independence as utopian and potentially dangerous for the workers. For her, as long as capitalism existed, a real independence would not have been possible anyway – and once socialism won, national differences, in her opinion, would not be a problem any more.
Luxemburg was definitely against petty-bourgeois nationalism that emerged in Polish society as well. She though the bourgeoisie would use the national struggle to lead the struggle of the workers into fighting for the interests of the national bourgeoisie and not the aims of the workers themselves. Lenin’s position was different, as the Bolsheviks regarded the situation from the point of view of Russians, perceived as the nation oppressing smaller nations and ethnic groups in the Russian Empire. That is why the Bolsheviks declared the right of self-determination of all nations: not that they wanted to break Russia up and get small nation-states appear, but because they believed that the oppressed groups must get a clear signal that now they would have the freedom to decide themselves, to be in the union with Russia or not. The decision to join the union was to be the choice of Polish workers, Ukrainian workers or any other – but not of Great Russian workers.
Here I too believe that Rosa Luxemburg’s background played a decisive role. Her viewpoint on the national question can be explained by the fact that she came from the oppressed minority group. And yet, while considering the struggle utopian, she did not hesitate to stand against German imperialism, against, for instance, German military venture in Morocco – when some of her SPD comrades spoke with colonialist rhetorics, about 'civilising mission’.
How can Rosa’s legacy be an inspiration to the left of today? Some left-wingers claim we need to reinvent socialism, a green socialism – can we find hints how to do that in Rosa’s writings?
I do not think we need to reinvent anything. The ideas of Rosa Luxemburg, just like Karl Marx or Lenin, remain valid as they were. They explained how capitalism worked, why we need socialism and the workers’ state, how the workers’ state could be built based and why we need a democratically planned, nationalized economy.
We need to re-adopt their thoughts in present day capitalist conditions, not to look for a brand new vision. Rosa’s vision was a workers’ republic, with workers’ council acting as local centers of power, just like it happened in the beginnings of the Russian Revolution. She did not live long enough to imagine more of democratic socialism, of an European revolution. Still, we need to revive Luxemburg’s genuine internationalism and willingness to see workers building socialism cross-borders.
What would she say today, seeing that revolutionary parties are hardly to be found, and the workers support, at best, reformist organizations?
We need to see, however, that the masses are not passive. The decade before the pandemics was full of protests and demonstrations, with more or less radical demands. We saw the Arabic Spring. We are witnessing a surge in left-wing movements across Latin America. Under the pandemic, we saw Black Lives Matter movement and many others.
What is the problem today and what think Rosa Luxemburg would have pointed out is that there is no revolutionary leadership to offer real solutions to the working class. Of course, there are historical reasons behind this lack of revolutionary leadership.But when there is none, workers’ movements do not proceed to see their demands put into practice. The demonstrations lose the momentum as people will not be staying in the streets forever.
If there are no parties that offer a full-fledged Socialist vision, like the Bolsheviks did, people cast their hopes in Reformists and their promises. However, old traditional parties – both left and right-wing – have tended to lose voters, and all kinds of 'new movements’ gained them. People test the new movements – including left-wing ones like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece – just to realise that they do not offer a real alternative neither, due to a lack of firm theoretical foundation. There is tiredness with old-styled politics that leads to nothing, but without socialist political leadership the masses will need to learn from experience for yet a long time.
Revolutions are not made by revolutionaries. They start, when the working masses feel that the conditions of the system are unbearable. However, a party organised according to the principles of democratic centralism is a force that can ensure a success of a revolution. A party with a firm theoretical knowledge, acting in the best interest of the working class, which is not a discussion club, but debates events and solutions inside, then takes a democratic decision and acts accordingly. Such party should be organised already – so that it gains experience and trust and is ready to play a role in a mass movement once it breaks out.
Even though Rosa’s actions and writing were to a large extent centered around the questions of party politics, spontaneity of the masses, revolutionary tactics etc. she often re-emerges today, in publications of social-democratic parties, as a … feminist icon.
She may be a great inspiration for young women, being one of the key figures of the working movement, when politics – of different currents – were men-dominated. Still, she left almost no pieces on the women question – I know no more than five articles. She refused to be sent to head a party women structure. And if she spoke on women’s question, she staunchly stood on class positions. In a revolutionary situation, she believed, working women’s interest would position them together with working men, while bourgeois women would naturally side with their own class. For her, bourgeois feminism was no more than a struggle of women of that class, who wanted to gain the same privileges that were enjoyed by bourgeois men. And the liberation of working women was linked to the liberation of the working class.
If a modern Socialist was to learn just one thing from Rosa Luxemburg, it would be…
Two things (laughs). You need confidence in the working class and its capacity to transform the society. And secondly: take time and study theory. Without that, any activist would repeat mistakes that others made in the past. We see a big trust placed today in the new Social-Democratic government of Germany. These hopes are placed wrongly and result from lack of knowledge of class balance, lack of Marxist understanding. So – a confidence in action and serious theoretical preparation. That is what we need now.
Marie Frederikssen is a Danish Marxist, activist of International Marxist Tendency whose aim is to build and provide a genuine Marxist leadership for the incoming struggles of the working class. IMT is represented in Poland by Czerwony Front.
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