The German Left and Bolshevism
Like the previous piece, this article first appeared in the February 1939 issue of the New International. It is a reply to Max Shachtman’s article, "Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg", which was reprinted in What Next? No.3. In contrast to the "revisionist" approach to the history of the early Communist International which Held would adopt in his later article "Why the German Revolution Failed" (reprinted in the first issue of this journal), he presents here a fiercely orthodox defence of Leninism against Luxemburgism. In doing so, he raises a number of issues – the relationship between spontaneity and Marxism, and the appropriate form of revolutionary political organisation, for example – which will hopefully be the subject of further discussion in What Next?
If, however, the question is once more put today of the content of the differences between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg – and it must be put again, in so far as this question relates to the solution of present tasks – we cannot content ourselves with a simple obeisance to the memory of Rosa Luxemburg. Besides, it would mean today to profane instead of honour Rosa’s memory if we were to allow the discussion on this theme to be influenced in the slightest by the Stalinist publications. Shafts from this side cannot touch Rosa Luxemburg. As an ideological current Stalinism is dead. It does not stand before history as accuser, but as accused.
On the other hand, there are today numerous currents which counterpose to the Bolshevik conception, so to speak, a Luxemburgian conception. These gentleman see in Stalin’s total police dictatorship and the Moscow Trials the direct result of Lenin’s "centralism" and deduce that Rosa Luxemburg has remained correct in her polemic against Lenin’s alleged overestimation of centralised leadership. This at first blush fascinating argument overlooks, nevertheless, the fact that if Lenin is to be made responsible for Stalin, it is no less justified to load Rosa Luxemburg with the responsibility for the rule ... of Hitler. And actually there is in both assertions a kernel, only a kernel, of truth, but it is just this kernel that must be discovered.
Comrade Max Shachtman, in an exceptionally interesting article on this theme ("Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg", New International, May 1938), endeavoured to explain the differences between Lenin and Luxemburg by the historic diversity of Russian and German conditions. Now such an investigation of the objective background of the divergences is naturally entirely necessary for an understanding of them. But the investigation cannot and should not stop there; otherwise we run the risk of falling into Austro-Marxism, that is, a Marxism which confines itself to demonstrating, with the aid of the Marxian method (a caricature of the Marxian method), that everything happened as it had to happen, and which thus eliminates from history the responsibility of the subjective factor. In reality, however, we all know that the revolutionary labour movement up to now foundered not on the objective situation as such but on its subjective subjugation. Then if we are to overcome the crisis of the labour movement, we must pitilessly lay bare the ultimate causes of this subjective failure and make the balance-sheet of this dearly paid-for historical experience part of the inalienable theoretical capital of the Fourth International.
International significance of Lenin
In his work which appeared three years after the victory of the October Revolution, "Left Wing" Communism – an Infantile Disorder, Lenin then tried to make the Bolshevik conception of 1903 accessible and understandable to the West European workers. The question why this attempt failed should be treated anew in connection with the hapless March adventure of the German Communist Party, and we reserve this for a later article. Here it is a question only of the following: whoever studies attentively "Left Wing" Communism and compares it with the early writings of Lenin, will find again the same ideas and the same conception, even if in highly popularised form. That, however, would refute the view that Lenin did not consider his ideas of 1903 as "export commodities". In 1903, Lenin did not think of any exporting only because he imagined he was importing into "backward" Russia the ideas of Bebel and Kautsky which had long ago become unavowed truisms in "progressive" Germany, in order to have them prevail over the revisionist, opportunistic and centrist currents of Martinov and Martov; whereas in reality it should have been a question of counterposing the Bolshevik conception, the programme of What Is To Be Done?, to the whole theory and practice of the Second International, the Bernsteinian as well as the Kautskyian and Luxemburgian tendencies.
It would, however, be wrong to ignore the enormous qualitative difference in the historical mistakes of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. While Lenin succeeded in creating the first truly Marxian party, which led the Russian proletariat to the summits of power and thereby gave the world proletariat a tremendous impulsion and a vast mass of new points of view, experiences and lessons; while Lenin’s conception of 1903 found its highest confirmation in the planfully directed October uprising; Rosa’s conception suffered a terrible shipwreck in January 1919, and the German left presented us, besides a series of remarkable characters and martyrs to the cause, only the bitter lesson of a new defeat.
At bottom, the disastrous mistake of Rosa Luxemburg was concentrated in the question of the role of the party, in the definition of the social democracy "as the self-movement of the working class", which she counterposed to the brilliant Leninist definition of "the revolutionary social democrats as Jacobins bound up with the working class". "The social democracy as the self-movement of the working class" can never be anything but trade unionism transferred to the political sphere. Such a social democracy will never shake bourgeois society to its foundations. It will either run its head vainly against the solid walls of the bourgeois state or voluntarily submit to the latter as it stands. The proletarian class as a whole is, under the conditions of capitalism, not in a position to raise itself to such a level of consciousness as to be able to confront the bourgeoisie in a superior manner in all fields, to destroy bourgeois authority and to replace it with proletarian authority. Capitalism would not be suppression, exploitation and slavery if that were not the case. That is just why the problem is to create out of the specialists closely bound up with the working class a firmly disciplined organisation which, with the aid of Marxian armour, destroys bourgeois authority first in theory and then in practical reality, and leads the "self-movement" of the working class beyond the limits set for it.
The lack of final consistency accompanied Rosa throughout her political life, whereas Lenin, precisely because of the relentlessness with which he carried out a once recognised necessity, was in a position to accomplish his historic mission.
In her work written in 1899, Social Reform or Social Revolution, which will forever remain a pearl in Marxian polemical literature, Rosa Luxemburg rightfully demanded the expulsion of the Bernsteinians from the party. In the second edition of this work, which appeared in 1908, she omitted all the corresponding passages. Bernsteinism had eaten its way into the flesh of the German party like a fungus; the flesh was decomposing. But what new consequence did Rosa draw? None at all. She threatened the petrified leadership: the masses will teach you new mores! But if the masses will correct the mistakes of the party out of their own initiative, why then the demand for Bernstein’s expulsion in 1899? In 1910, Rosa saw through the pedantic officialdom of Kautsky and attacked him sharply in a series of articles. Yet again she does not draw the final consequence of her judgement. Although she stops her Sunday visits to Kautsky and thus gives new evidence of her spotless and exemplary character, she is nevertheless lacking politically in the same measure of resoluteness. If the party was ravaged by Bernsteinism and even the "Marxian centre" of the Neue Zeit had come to a standstill in the routine of the "tactic that stood the test for forty years", then it was absolutely necessary to unfurl the Marxian banner anew and in the eyes of all, with the formal question whether to constitute a new party immediately or to remain for a while inside the social democracy as a firmly-disciplined faction, playing a minor role. In any case, however, it was necessary to come out against the reformism and centrism of the social democracy in every single question and permanently, to drive it out of reality instead of letting oneself be driven out by it. The German left never raised the question clearly, much less did it have a firm plan for resolving it.
Yet, while Lenin immediately draws the last consequence from the Fourth of August with his customary keenness – "The Second International is dead, long live the Third!" – and now seeks to develop, also in the International, all the elements to a Bolshevik conception of things (see, for example, his criticism of the Junius brochure), the German left continues to remain steeped in its fundamental mistake. The same erroneous conceptions on the role and task of the party which Rosa Luxemburg defended in 1904, recur in an article she published on 31 March 1917 in the Duisburg organ of the USPD, Der Kampf. "The Spartacus League tendency", it says, "does not counterpose to the Independent social democracy another programme and a fundamentally quite different tactic, which supply at every moment and as a permanent structure the basis of a separated party existence [that’s just what the problem was! W.H.], rather it is only [!] another historical tendency of the whole movement of the proletariat, from which follows, to be sure, a different attitude in almost every question of tactics and organisation. The opinion, however, that from this follows the necessity or even only the objective possibility of now jamming the workers into different, carefully separated party cages corresponding to the two tendencies of the opposition, is based upon a conventicle-conception of the party."
From the "not-to-be-taken-seriously nonsense" of the organisation as a process, runs a straight line to this no less curious philosophy of an organisation which, although it does not counterpose to the opportunistic tendency any independent programme and any fundamentally quite different tactic, nevertheless does embody "another historical tendency". With such light ideological baggage did Spartacus march in the German revolution. The catastrophic effect was not to be averted.
The German catastrophe
The founding conference of the Communist Party, which finally takes place at the end of December 1918, decides however to drive the line of abstentionism to the point of absurdity, to boycott the elections to the National Assembly; there is even a discussion on withdrawing from the mass trade unions. And Rosa, who had just accused the Bolsheviks because they renounced the institution of the National Assembly after the victory, that is, possessing power they exercised the dictatorship – Rosa suffered the misfortune of becoming the prisoner of a party which renounces the National Assembly before the victory, and which, as a small minority, undertakes the hopeless tasks of imposing its ultimatum on the vast majority. Although she herself spoke for participation in the elections and lamented the "immaturity" of the congress, she did not recognise that her own disorganising organisational principles had suffered shipwreck here, that in her own way she had created a Utopian-radical instead of a Marxian party.
No surgeon can operate with a dull knife, no Marxist can act with an undisciplined, Utopian party. And still Rosa does not dare to carry out the break with this Utopian element, she herself becomes the victim of the organisational fetishism with which she wrongly reproached Lenin, and she goes to the operating table of history with a dull instrument. Possibly it is only because she has still not yet grasped the fact that the success or failure of the revolution depends upon her own self, upon her own policy. And thus we also find once more in the Spartacus programme, adopted, characteristically, unanimously by the same congress which decided on abstention from the elections, the old mistakes. Just read the following passages: "In tenacious struggle with capital, breast to breast in every factory, by direct pressure of the masses, by strikes, by creating their permanent organs of representation, the workers can achieve control over production and finally the actual direction." "The Spartacus League is not a party which seeks to reach dominion over the working masses or through the working masses. The Spartacus League is only [!] the most conscious part of the proletariat, which, at every step of the whole broad mass of the working class, points out its historical tasks."
It follows clearly that Rosa Luxemburg had an entirely inadequate picture of the course of the proletarian revolution. She conceived of the proletarian revolution as a sort of new November revolution, as a chain of strikes and uprisings which finally merge into a general strike or even a popular uprising. With her the role of the party was confined to summoning the masses to action, until finally the power will fall into the lap of the party as a ripe fruit, something like the social democracy reaped the fruits of the first revolution. She did not recognise that it is the task of the party to assemble the masses and to discipline them like troops for a battle, and that the leadership of the party, like a gifted field commander or general staff, must have the strategic plan of battle in its head and convert it into a reality.
It was the ignoring of this task of the party that led Spartacus to the worst mistake that a revolutionary party can ever commit, namely, to play with the insurrection. For the Spartacus insurrection of January 1919 was nothing but a completely planless, quite inconceivably naive playing with the fire of insurrection. The narrow-minded counter-revolutionists, Hohenzollern sergeant-majors, stupid fanatics of Order and bloodhounds of the bourgeoisie, Noske and Ebert, set a trap for Spartacus and Spartacus fell into the trap with covered eyes. And thus did also Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Jogiches suffer the typical fate of all German revolutionists, which the exceptionally talented poet Oskar Panizza, who later went mad, epitomised in the unsentimental phrase: "Until now the Germans have unfortunately known only the passive form of beheading: being beheaded." While, on the contrary, the Russians under the leadership of the Bolsheviks proceeded to the realisation of the prediction made as far back as 1896 by the same Panizza: "Russia, that lurking brain, will some day burst out frightfully and the people of the Bakunins and Dostoievskys will gain its freedom by a fallen head." Between beheading and being beheaded, however, between active and passive, between Lenin and Luxemburg, there is no compromise.