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Introduction to "Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin?"

Mike Jones

THE ARTICLE below (August Thalheimer, "Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin?") was first published in the 3 January 1930 issue of Gegen den Strom. It was apparently written both to mark the celebration of the "Three Ls" (Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht) on 15 January 1930 and also to counter crude attacks on Luxemburg by those leaders of the German Communist Party (KPD) who were undertaking the final Stalinisation of the party in the aftermath of the adoption of the Comintern’s ultra-left "new line". By then many of Luxemburg’s associates, who had founded and built up the party, had been expelled and were organised in the KPD (Opposition), whose theoretical weekly Gegen den Strom was. The Luxemburg tradition had come under attack earlier, under the Ruth Fischer-Arkadi Maslow leadership, allies of Zinoviev, who began the so-called "Bolshevisation" of the KPD, uprooting the native democratic structures and adopting one resulting from the Russian experience – almost destroying the party in the process, because of the linked sectarian politics. Luxemburg, Trotsky and Brandler1 were all compared and denounced as "semi-Mensheviks", etc.

Walter Held’s essay in the last What Next? ("The German Left and Bolshevism") would seem to stem from that tradition that thought the Bolsheviks had found all the answers. I see that outlook as ahistorical. As August Thalheimer points out, it was not a result of an "error" that Rosa Luxemburg opposed centralism in Germany, but because of the level of capitalist development, the level of class struggle, and the corresponding forms of the labour movement thrown up by the workers themselves. In Russia and Poland, the level of capitalist development and of the class struggle, and the need for secrecy, all meant that the nascent movement was dominated by the intellectuals, with only a few advanced workers prepared to follow them. The organisations they set up were by nature of the Blanquist type. The 1903 dispute over the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party statutes reflects that.

The organisational form adopted by the workers’ organisations expressed the needs of the distinct stage of development. In Germany, Rosa Luxemburg fought the centralism of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), as this was allowing the party to move away from the advanced workers and into class collaboration. For her, the workers’ party must be able to respond to the creative deeds of the revolutionary workers, to integrate into its arsenal their new conceptions, and to theorise such novel creations. The top-down centralised party cannot respond to such creative acts. It operates according to schemas drafted by all-powerful Central Committees. Witness the Bolshevik response to the 1905 events.

In accordance with her analysis of capitalist development – as set out in her The Accumulation of Capital – Rosa Luxemburg assumed that, as capitalism developed, its contradictions sharpened. The class struggle would increase accordingly and the working class would gradually radicalise, resulting in the SPD shedding the petty bourgeois element and becoming the pure workers’ party required, as the radicalised workers began to determine its policy and tactics. For her, it was not the party that brought revolutionary consciousness to the working class, but the workers, becoming conscious through the actual struggles they undertook, who then brought their conceptions into the party. The party then reworks these discoveries into its programme and theory. Luxemburg saw the role of the party as that of raising the existing consciousness of the class, not as arriving from outside and imposing ready-made schemas.

For example, the "Open Letter" of January 1921, where the KPD advanced demands around which a United Front could materialise, came from the Stuttgart Demands, put forward by KPD metalworkers in that area; and they, in turn, originated in a discussion of the Württemberg District Committee of the KPD, at which Brandler and Walcher were present.2 The point being that Württemberg had been a stronghold of Spartakus, key KPD leaders came from there, and a layer of workers existed who had been schooled in Luxemburg’s understanding of Marxism. Hence the demands came not from the top down, but from that reciprocal relationship between the party and class.

Luxemburg’s struggle, waged over the years within the SPD, meant that she understood that reformism and centrism had deep material roots, that the removal of a few leaders was no solution, that these historical leaders had a following, even if, to a degree, this was based on illusions. No, the 4 August events resulted from a long historical process. Therefore she opposed any break from the SPD until no more could be done (and she was correct to oppose Lenin at Zimmerwald – as was Trotsky), as a small group of intellectuals and a tiny sector of advanced workers would have only separated themselves from the organised workers’ movement by a split, and made difficult the task of influencing those same workers, by participating in and influencing the process whereby they became aware of the need either to take over the old party or to found a new one. For Luxemburg, as for Marx, the emergence of the party does not result from the will of the intellectuals but from the conscious decision of the working class, out of a stage in its development, and out of the class struggle itself. Everything else is sect-building.

Hence it was no "error" of Luxemburg to have neglected to split long before. August Thalheimer’s phrase "schoolboy notion" sums up such a view. That view is still current in some of the sects today. Another one, just as erroneous, is that she should have created a "hard faction" in the SPD. To what end? As long as Luxemburg and her comrades had freedom of speech, could operate freely, could not only publish in but even edit local newspapers, could run local and district SPD organisations, in other words have normal rights as party members – then why set up secret groupings? A current of opinion suffices in such circumstances. Secret groups can only alienate other comrades and cut oneself off from influencing them.

Years later, looking back, Thalheimer wrote: "Still in 1914-15, we did not exclude the possibility of being able to still raise the flag of revolution within the Social Democracy and cleansing it of opportunist elements. Only gradually did we become convinced that within this old framework there was nothing more to expect, nothing more to gain. One must be clear, however, that inside the Social Democratic Party the severe factional struggles between the Lassalleans and Eisenachers were still fixed in the memory, the idea of a split met with the most difficult obstructions and the most grave hesitations among even the most progressive workers."3

In Chapter 5 of his Rosa Luxemburg biography, Paul Frölich evaluates our two protagonists, and although he has been accused of smoothing out the differences, it seems to me that, within the framework of the task he was set, he does face up to them. On the original argument over the type of party (1904), Frölich says that Luxemburg "observed in him [Lenin] ... a dangerous rigidity in argumentation, a certain scholasticism in his political ideas, and a tendency to ignore the living movement of the masses, or even to coerce it into accepting preconceived tactical plans".4 But he goes on to say: "In any case, when big decisions had to be taken, he demonstrated a tactical elasticity which one would not have suspected from his writings. His associates, however, manifested that conservative inertia, as decried by Rosa Luxemburg."5 Summing up that first difference, Frölich concludes that: "Luxemburg underestimated the power of organisation, particularly when the reins of leadership were in the hands of her opponents. She relied all too believingly on the pressure of the revolutionary masses to make any correction in party policy. Lenin’s total political view prior to 1917 shows traces of unmistakeably Blanquist influences and an exaggerated voluntarism, though he quickly overcame it when faced with concrete situations ... it can be said that Rosa concerned herself more with the historical process as a whole and derived her political decisions from it, while Lenin’s eye was more concentrated on the final aim and sought the means to bring it about. For her the decisive element was the mass; for him it was the party, which he wanted to forge into the spearhead of the whole movement."6

Frölich looks at Luxemburg’s approach to the party during the war in Chapter 11, and adequately outlines her reasoning. In Chapter 12, he does the came regarding her attitude in 1917 and the deeds of the Bolsheviks. Thalheimer does not deal with the questions of democracy or the terror, so I’ll restrict myself to a few comments only. In her unfinished brochure on the Russian Revolution, Luxemburg spoke up for "the dictatorship of the class, not of a party or of a clique". She also criticised the Bolsheviks justifying the measures they took, and even theoretising them, when they went counter to the Marxist programme. If we know that these measures were adopted ad hoc because of civil war and counter-revolution, we also know today where they led. Such measures became part and parcel of what passed for Communist theory. It seems to me that Luxemburg was correct here.

In a number of quotes from Luxemburg’s brochure, Frölich sums up how she saw the role of the masses, as opposed to Lenin-Trotsky. She wrote that "socialist practice demands a total spiritual transformation in the masses" ("ganze geistige Umwälzung" – the untranslatable "geistige" can also mean "mental", "intellectual", etc.), and to me that sums up Luxemburg. For her the downtrodden masses had become conscious of the need to take power and emancipate themselves; that a party based on Marxism was pushing them aside and saying "leave things to us" was incomprehensible. For me she represents more the Marxism of Marx, while Lenin (Trotsky became a Bolshevik and rejected his old criticism) has strong Blanquist traits that surely originate in the Russian populist tradition. A serious debate on these old arguments is welcome, and here I agree with Thalheimer, that one should reject the either/or, thereby constructing false poles, but approach the matters historically, and today with the benefit of much hindsight.


1. KPD leader Heinrich Brandler was scapegoated by the Comintern for the failure of the "German October" in 1923. He and Thalheimer later became co-leaders of the KPD-Opposition. (Editorial note.)

2. K.H. Tjaden, Struktur und Funktion der KPD-Opposition (KPO), 1964, Vol.2, pp.90-1, note 1. Hans Tittel, at that time Political Secretary of the Württemberg District, told Tjaden years later how the Stuttgart Demands came about. (Jakob Walcher was another future leader of the KPD-Opposition: editorial note.)

3. A. Thalheimer, "Spartakus und die Weltkrieg", Inprekorr, No.83, 8 July 1924, cited by J. Kaestner, Die politische Theorie August Thalheimers, 1982, p.29.

4. P. Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg, 1972, p.85.

5. Ibid, p.86.

6. Ibid, pp.88-9.