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Introduction to Max Shachtman’s "Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg"

Tony Dale

HOW SHOULD socialists organise? What is the revolutionary party? These questions have dominated the Marxist left for over a century. In this debate Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg are often viewed as authorities for two opposing sides. They are seen as holding fundamentally counterposed positions. Max Shachtman in the following article ("Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg") proves the differences between the two have been greatly exaggerated. Lenin and Luxemburg have more in common than many socialists realise or some will acknowledge.

Both Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s writings on party organisation need to be understood against the backdrop of the different political situations confronting socialists in Russia and Germany. Lenin, faced with a weak and disorganised socialist movement, looked to the professional revolutionaries to pull together and organise that movement. For Luxemburg the ‘socialist’ professionals in the German Social Democratic movement were conservative full-time officials. The only hope for socialism was to free the German labour movement from the rule of this bureaucracy by appealing to the spontaneous class struggle of the rank and file. Luxemburg and Lenin were active in two different labour movements and their arguments need to be understood in this context.

The differences in the approaches of Lenin and Luxemburg came to the surface with the publication of Luxemburg’s "Organisational Question of Russian Social Democracy". This 1904 article makes a number of sharp criticisms of Lenin’s concept of party organisation as outlined in his pamphlets What Is To Be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: "The ultra centralism asked by Lenin is full of the sterile spirit of the overseer. It is not a positive and creative spirit."1

Luxemburg objected to "the fundamental falseness of the idea underlying the plan of unqualified centralism – the idea that the road to opportunism can be barred by means of clauses in a party constitution2 ... we find most astonishing the claim that it is possible to avoid any possibility of opportunism in the Russian movement by writing down certain words, instead of others, in the party constitution".3 She argued that Lenin misunderstood opportunism’s organisational preferences: "To attribute to opportunism an invariable preference for a definite form of organisation, that is, decentralisation, is to miss the essence of opportunism.... On the question of organisation, or any other question, opportunism knows only one principle: the absence of principle."4

How would the movement be protected from opportunism? "We cannot secure ourselves in advance against all possibilities of opportunist deviation. Such dangers can be overcome only by the movement itself – certainly with the aid of Marxist theory."5

Despite these criticisms Luxemburg did recognise that "The Russian socialists are obliged to undertake the building of such an organisation without the benefit of the formal guarantees commonly found under a bourgeois democratic setup".6 She believed the difficult political situation confronting Russian Social Democracy explained Lenin’s campaign for centralism: "Autonomy and isolation are the most pronounced characteristics of the old organisational type. It is, therefore, understandable why the slogan of the persons who want to see an inclusive national organisation should be ‘Centralism!’."7 "Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy" put forward a conception of "social-democratic centralism" which was "the concentrated will of the individuals and groups representative of the most class-conscious, militant, advanced sections of the working class. It is, so to speak, the ‘self centralism’ of the advanced sectors of the proletariat".8

In this earlier period there were obviously serious disagreements, but how deep was the breach? Luxemburg polemicising against Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back does not prove a fundamental divide between Luxemburg and the Lenin of 1917. Even in 1904 Lenin believed the distance between himself and Luxemburg was greatly exaggerated. His main complaint against Luxemburg’s polemic was that she "does not acquaint the reader with my book, but with something else.... Comrade Luxemburg thus supposes that I defend one system of organisation against another. But actually that is not so".9 He felt his views were misunderstood and he was being misrepresented as a supporter of "‘intransigent centralism’".10

Under the influence of mass-revolutionary events Lenin moved away from many of the formulations Luxemburg had polemicised against. Radek reported a conversation he had with Lenin in 1923: "when Vladimir Ilyich once observed me glancing through a collection of his articles in 1903, which had just been published, a sly smile crossed his face, and he remarked with a laugh: ‘It is very interesting to read what stupid fellows we were!’."11

Even by 1906 Luxemburg was also revising some of her arguments of 1904: "If today the Bolshevik comrades speak of the dictatorship of the proletariat, they do not give it the old Blanquist meaning.... On the contrary, they have affirmed that the present revolution could end with the whole of the revolutionary class laying hold of the state machine." "It is possible there were traces of this in the organisational project drafted by Lenin in 1902, but that is something which belongs in the past."12 Luxemburg did believe that socialists "are the most enlightened, most class conscious vanguard of the proletariat. They cannot and dare not wait, in a fatalist fashion, with folded arms for the advent of the revolutionary situation".13 She always believed in the necessity of socialists organising. Luxemburg by her actions also showed she had shifted from the some of her earlier arguments. Shachtman illustrates how she organised the Polish Marxists in a tight democratic-centralist party. In addition she went on to form the German Communist Party acknowledging the debt owed to the Bolshevik tradition.

The 1904 dispute over the party was not however the end of the differences between Lenin and Luxemburg. After the Bolsheviks came to power she wrote a critique, The Russian Revolution. In it she accused the Bolsheviks of having a bureaucratic conception of socialism: "The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. That is, unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – not the case."14

She was critical of the methods used by the Bolsheviks and fearful for where these methods would lead. On the terror and the curtailment of democratic liberties she very powerfully stated her position: "Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently."15 She accused the Bolsheviks of showing "a quite cool contempt for the Constituent Assembly, universal suffrage, freedom of the press and assembly, in short, for the whole apparatus of the basic democratic liberties".16

The revolution, she believed, could only be saved through mass democracy and an end to the terror: "he [Lenin] is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, Draconic penalties, rule by terror – all these things are but palliatives. The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralises."17

On the Bolsheviks’ dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, Luxemburg agreed that "the outgrown and therefore stillborn Constituent Assembly should have been annulled", but she believed that "without delay, new elections to a new Constituent Assembly should have been arranged".18 She was suspicious of some of the arguments used by the Bolsheviks: "from the special inadequacy of the Constituent Assembly which came together in October, Trotsky draws a general conclusion concerning the inadequacy of any popular representation whatsoever which might come from universal popular elections during the revolution."19 Luxemburg at this time was advocating a system of socialist democracy which would combine both parliament and soviets. As a result she is critical of the Bolsheviks because: "From the critique of democratic institutions by Lenin and Trotsky, it appears that popular representation on the basis of universal suffrage is rejected by them on principle, and that they want to base themselves only on soviets."20

In 1917 Russia, a country with a minority working class, a Constituent Assembly could become a hostile base for the counter-revolution. The specific situation in Russia justified the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. Luxemburg’s formula in Russia of 1917-18 would have led to crisis and possible defeat for the Bolsheviks at the hands of a hostile Constituent Assembly.

In the German Revolution of 1918-19 Luxemburg would put to the test her ideas on socialist democracy. In the specific revolutionary situation of Germany 1918-19, Luxemburg moved away from advocating a combination of Constituent Assembly and soviets and echoed Lenin’s 1917 position by demanding: "The councils must have all power in the state";21 "workers’ and soldiers’ councils must realise their mission and must learn to become the sole public authorities throughout the realm."22 At the same time the central committee of the Spartacus League, including Luxemburg, were defeated at the German Communist Party’s founding conference in a battle over the proposed Constituent Assembly. She opposed a boycott on the grounds that "We wish to be prepared for all possibilities, including the possibility of utilising the National Assembly for revolutionary purposes should the assembly ever come into being".23

Both Lenin and Luxemburg in revolutionary situations were prepared to be absolutely flexible on the representative form the revolution would take. Neither became ideologically imprisoned by making an object of worship of either parliaments or soviets. Luxemburg in a speech to the KPD founding conference stated "our only objection was to limiting our tactics to a single alternative".24 In the same speech she now asserted that: "A study of the existing situation enables us to predict with certainty that in whatever country, after Germany, the proletarian revolution may next break out, the first step will be the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils."25 But she also warned her comrades "to be prepared for all possibilities",26 including the possibility of using parliament for revolutionary purposes.

Even in The Russian Revolution, despite some sharp criticisms, she acknowledged that "the Bolshevik tendency performs the historic service of having proclaimed from the beginning, and having followed with iron consistency, those tactics which alone could save democracy and drive the revolution ahead.... The party of Lenin was thus the only one in Russia which grasped the true interest of the revolution.... It was the element that drove the revolution forward, and thus it was the only party which really carried on a socialist policy."27 A few months later she summed up her attitude as one of "enthusiasm coupled with a critical spirit".28

Luxemburg decided not to publish the pamphlet at the time as the Bolsheviks were involved in a life and death struggle for survival. She followed the advice of Paul Levi and other German socialists who were concerned it could give solace to the Bolsheviks’ opponents. In late 1918, in a letter to a close comrade, in relation to criticisms of the Bolsheviks she wrote: "I, too, shared all your reservations and doubts, but on the most important questions have dropped them."29 Whatever the true meaning of this private note, her criticisms of the Bolsheviks in The Russian Revolution were from another Marxist on the same side of the revolutionary struggle.

Stalin was responsible for starting the campaign to paint Luxemburg as a centrist. How could Luxemburg be a revolutionary Marxist if she had any disagreements with Lenin on the party? This was the question which haunted the Stalinist hacks. They squared the circle by saying her disagreements with the infallible Lenin prove she was a centrist. Down the years this approach has been followed by many "Leninists" who should know better. This method has also been adopted to similarly label other revolutionaries: Max Shachtman, the author of the reprinted article, is a case in point; Victor Serge is another.

Rosa Luxemburg had a belief that "not uncritical apologetics but penetrating and thoughtful criticism is alone capable of bringing out the treasures of experiences and teachings". She was not one for the semi-religious treatment of texts, the uncritical worship of a few great leaders or the hunting of heretics. That is a spirit we should seek to incorporate into our Marxism.

In looking back at Lenin and Luxemburg one has to agree with Max Shachtman that far more unites the two Marxists than separates them. In developing a healthy Marxism for today two of our sources for ideas and inspiration should be both Lenin and Luxemburg. It is mistake to look for an irreconcilable conflict between the two. It is more useful to look at how we can combine the best practices and the strongest ideas of both.

The following article by Max Shachtman was first published in the May 1938 issue of the New International. At the time New International was the theoretical journal of the United States Socialist Workers Party. Some "Trotskyists" may be inclined to ignore this article, as Shachtman’s name was to become a swear word in the Trotskyist movement. In actual fact Shachtman deserves more attention from the Marxist left.

Shachtman wrote "Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg" when he was second only to Trotsky in the international Trotskyist movement in terms of authority, prestige and respect. Shachtman and Trotsky split at the start of the Second World War in a dispute over whether the Stalinist states could still be seen as workers’ states. After that date Shachtman and nearly half of the American Trotskyists who went with him became outcasts from the Trotskyist movement. Their subsequent history has been hidden and unknown to many socialists.

Shachtman would become notorious for his actions in the 1960s when he condoned the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, opposed US withdrawal from Vietnam and supported the US Democrats. Shachtman lost his way as a Marxist, became demoralised and drifted to the right. This does not mean he was politically wrong for the whole of his life.

For most of the 1940s and 1950s Shachtman was involved in a serious attempt to build "an all-inclusive party in the revolutionary Marxist sense, in the Bolshevik sense, in the Trotskyist sense. That is to say, we are for a party which allows for the existence of different tendencies within the general framework of revolutionary Marxism". The Workers Party/Independent Socialist League believed that "our main political slogan, the struggle to break the proletariat from bourgeois politics and set it on the road of class politics – revolves around the fight for an independent Labour party".30 The fact that this tendency ran aground and Shachtman became a right-winger has more to do with the lack of openings for Marxists in the USA in the post-war period up to the 1960s than the bankruptcy of Shachtman’s earlier ideas and writings.


1. "Organisational Questions of Social Democracy", Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press, 1970, p.122.

2. Ibid, p.127.

3. Ibid, p.129.

4. Ibid, pp.125-6.

5. Ibid, p.129.

6. Ibid, p.115.

7. Ibid, p.115.

8. Ibid, p.119.

9. "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Reply by Lenin to Rosa Luxemburg", September 1904, Collected Works Vol.7, p.472.

10. Ibid, p.472.

11. K. Radek, "Lenin", A. Richardson, ed, In Defence of the Russian Revolution, 1994, p.76.

12. "Blanquism and Social Democracy", quoted in N. Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, 1983, p.102.

13. "The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions", Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p.200.

14. "The Russian Revolution", Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p.390.

15. Ibid, p.389.

16. Ibid, p.379.

17. Ibid, p.391.

18. Ibid, p.385.

19. Ibid, p.385.

20. Ibid, p.387.

21. "Speech to the Founding Convention of the German Communist Party", 30, 31 December 1918 or 1 January 1919, ibid, p.426.

22. Ibid, pp.426-7.

23. Ibid, p.421.

24. Ibid, p.421.

25. Ibid, p.414.

26. Ibid, p.421.

27. "The Russian Revolution", ibid, p.372.

28. Letter to Adolf Warski, Revolutionary History, Vol.6, No.2/3, 1996, p.247.

29. Ibid.

30. The quotations are from two unpublished Workers Party internal documents, "Balance of the Negotiations" from 1946 and "Character and Perspectives of the Revolutionary Party Today" from 1945. These and other Workers Party documents contain some interesting material which would be worth reprinting today.