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Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin?

August Thalheimer

ON THE 15 January, the revolutionary working class in Germany celebrates simultaneously Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Lenin. In the imagination and the sentiment of the German revolutionary worker they stand on the same level, as the hitherto greatest champions of the proletarian revolution. Each of them with their own traits, their own achievements, their own revolutionary character, their own role. The name of Lenin shines in the clear lustre of the victor of the first proletarian revolution and its convulsive and infectious impact worldwide. The names of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht are surrounded by the gloomy lustre of the leaders of a revolution that was crushed in its first assault, of the martyrs of the revolutionary struggle, of the most outstanding symbols of the arduous path of martyrdom and suffering, but also of the unbending fighting spirit of the German working class. If the former personifies the victorious present and true reality of the proletarian revolution, then the latter personify its future, its hope, its intention to break through to the advanced capitalist west. All three are equally dear to the hearts of the revolutionary working class.

Only the minor and ambitious fellows today at work on the shoulders of these giants, in dull ignorance, in order to misrepresent, to pervert and demolish what the others built up, now reserve the right to put the question: "Luxemburg or Lenin?" And they decide it so: Rosa Luxemburg became stuck on the way to Bolshevism (the name Communism is apparently no longer sufficient), at centrism or semi-centrism, so to speak, that she was a – fortunately outmoded – stage towards the height to which these fellows have raised themselves.

It would, however, be just as wrong to counterpose to this mistake the opposite one, that "Luxemburgism" is the superior revolutionary doctrine to Leninism.

Not Luxemburg or Lenin – but Luxemburg and Lenin. Here it is not a question of an obscure mixture and obliteration of differences, but of recognising the particular role and significance of each of them for the proletarian revolution. Each of them gave the proletarian revolution something the other did not, and could not, give. The reasons can be found in the different historical role of the revolutionary movements in which they were, above all, rooted and which they, above all, influenced.

Firstly, we take the general conception of the proletarian revolution. Out of genuine revolutionary Marxism, both Rosa Luxemburg and also Lenin rescued the general conception of the proletarian dictatorship and the role of revolutionary violence within it. Rosa Luxemburg championed this conception first in the West not only against the revisionism of Bernstein, but also against Kautsky, against the "Marxist Centre" – obviously so named because it tore the revolutionary centre from the Marxist conception of the proletarian revolution, by dispelling the proletarian dictatorship and limiting the revolutionary struggle to the democratic-parliamentary-trade union struggle.

The essence of the Marxist Centre, of Kautskyism, took shape in the years in which the struggle of the proletariat for power was felt to be approaching, and it implied that what was only a certain period in the struggle of the German and Western proletariat, the parliamentary and trade union struggle for reforms, was an absolute, the one and only way. Kautskyist thought faltered before the dialectical transformation of the method of struggle for reform into that of the immediate revolutionary struggle. For the whole of Marxism it substituted the fragment, which parliamentary-trade unionist struggle of the German social democracy during the years 1870-1914 embodied. Consequently, when history really posed the question of the proletarian revolution during the imperialist world war, Kautskyism sank back into social-pacifism and vulgar democracy, and vulgar democracy turned into naked counter-revolution.

Bernstein and Kautsky, the "Siamese Twins", the poles of the same vulgar democratic and semi-Marxist narrow-mindedness, today logically find themselves together again on the basis of the same conception.

In opposition to them, Rosa Luxemburg rescued the whole, and thereby the true, conception of Marxism, due to the fact that she saw far beyond the German and Western European sector of the proletarian struggle and therefore also in time beyond the purely parliamentary and purely trade union period.

However, she was no more able than Marx and Engels, or anyone else however ingenious, to anticipate out of the depths of the mind, discoveries and creations which only the struggle of the proletarian masses itself was able to accomplish. Bureaucrats of the revolution may imagine that they can replace the creative power of the historical process of the revolution (yet in reality it only results in powerless caricatures). As long as the proletarian revolution had not assumed a real form anywhere, the conception of the proletarian revolution could not go beyond the degree of precision conceived by Marx and Engels from out of the French Commune, i.e. it had to remain standing at a still very general and abstract conception.

An important and decisive step beyond that was first taken by the revolutionary Marxist leader of the working class who stood closest to the Russian revolution of 1905-6 and therefore knew how to fully evaluate its results theoretically. This role fell to Lenin. From the 1905-6 revolution he conceived the idea of the significance of the councils as the embryo of proletarian state power and in connection with the 1917 revolution as the concrete fundamental form of the state of the proletarian dictatorship.

The true creator of this form is the revolutionary working class itself. Lenin’s epoch-making accomplishment consists in recognising the general significance and historical importance of this form faster, more sharply and more profoundly than anyone else, and in having drawn practical-revolutionary conclusions from this perception.

Following a different direction, Lenin concretised the conception, and with that also the plan and strategy, of the proletarian revolution: with regard to the relation between the proletarian, the agrarian-peasant and the national revolution. The powerful experimental field of three Russian revolutions also produced the illustrative material for that. (In Trotsky’s description, in his "An Attempt at an Autobiography", all that remains in semi-darkness, which might be agreeable for him, but is harmful for historical knowledge.)

As soon as the German revolution approached in 1918, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring, Leo Jogiches, and those united with them in the Spartakusbund, at once accepted this conception as their standpoint, and they knew how to use it with complete independence, in a country with substantially different class relations. In a country where the working class did not constitute a small minority of the population as in Russia, but the majority. Where the anti-feudal agrarian revolution had already been completed. Where capitalism had attained its highest level of development. Where the working class had for decades been used to broad mass organisations, etc.

Neither "centrists" nor "semi-centrists", not even mere pupils, not to mention bureaucratic subordinates of a bureaucratic supreme authority of the proletarian revolution, were capable of that task; only independent revolutionary brains could accomplish it. The outcome of these achievements, which continue the work of the Russian revolution on German ground, is the Spartakus Programme, is the Rote Fahne up to the deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

In the bureaucratic regions of the KPD it has become customary to attribute to a subjective "error" on Rosa Luxemburg’s part, that in November 1918 the Spartakusbund was not yet a strong mass party but only a numerically weak tendency in transition towards a party. According to this conception, she already "failed" to "split" in 1914 or 1915, or even as early as 1903. This schoolboy notion fails to grasp that the conditions for the building of a revolutionary party out of an already existing mass party, which assembles within it the most progressive elements of the working class, are different from those where such a mass party and mass organisations do not yet exist, but where the task is to build the revolutionary core to which the unorganised proletarian masses then adhere. That was, however, the different situation in Russia.

Regarding the national question, Rosa Luxemburg’s consistent struggle in Poland against petty bourgeois nationalism remains a merit not disputed by Lenin. Her theoretical generalisation was mistaken. Lenin correctly accomplished it out of the great Russian experience.

Regarding the agrarian question, too, the different conceptions can be wholly explained by the different conditions. Where feudal or semi-feudal agrarian relations in the countryside still have to be overcome, as in Russia, but also in a series of other countries, the transitional stage in which the generalisation and levelling of the individual peasant holdings is unavoidable. However, on the other hand, the later Russian experience shows that the construction of socialist industry came very quickly into intolerable contradiction with the continued existence of the individual peasant holding, and that socialist industry must be supplemented by large-scale socialist enterprise on the land. Yet it goes without saying that from this general necessity it does not follow that this step can be made at any moment but that certain real preconditions must met. Trotsky erred in this question by ignoring these real preconditions. He erred moreover by not understanding that this transition could only be carried out not against but only together with the great majority of the small and the middle peasants. If it is correct that the transitional stage of the poor peasantry in Russia could not be skipped over, then it is just as true that under different conditions the aim of the large socialist agricultural enterprise can be attained in other shortened stages and in part by other means.

In the proletarian revolution too, indeed quite particularly in it, the historical dialectic makes itself felt, in that the very same method causes transformations in opposite directions depending on the different preconditions and that for the same purposes under different circumstances occasionally contrary means and methods are called for.

Some questions of the revolutionary organisation may serve as an example. In Russia, Lenin posed the question of the strictest revolutionary centralisation at first against the Mensheviks, in a situation where it was a matter of clearly distinguishing between the elements of the proletarian and the bourgeois revolution. The loose form of revolutionary organisation favoured by the Mensheviks was the organisational expression of the dominance of bourgeois-revolutionary intellectual elements, whereas strictest centralisation was the organisational expression of the proletarian-revolutionary class character of the movement.

How different to Germany before the war! The sharpest form of organisational centralisation here was represented by the party bureaucracy, more or less corroded by opportunism. The rule of the opportunist tendency expressed itself organisationally by the domination of a strictly centralist, opportunist party apparatus. Against that the task was to appeal to the revolutionary self-activity of the members. In Russia the principle of strict centralisation was bound up with the proletarian-revolutionary tendency, while it was the opposite in Germany, where this was the principle of the opportunist-petty-bourgeois-bureaucratic tendency. The same formal organisational principle in fact combined contradictory contents regarding both the direction and, in the last analysis, class objectives. In Germany, therefore, the first task was to attack the opportunist-reformist-parliamentary centralism, to smash it, in order to create the preconditions for revolutionary centralisation. A classical dialectical course of development: from the opportunist centralisation through its abolition to the revolutionary centralisation.

However, revolutionary centralisation, too, in its turn undergoes anew a dialectical course of development.

That is shown most tangibly in the question of the "professional revolutionary". The "professional revolutionary" is a necessary product and tool of the leadership of the revolutionary organisation that is illegal and is not yet a mass organisation. In the legal Communist mass organisation there is no place for the "professional revolutionary" in this sense. Here, as the movement grows, the "professional revolutionary" too easily changes into the characterless, politically and materially corrupt careerist bureaucrat, for whom the revolutionary movement is a source of a living, of a career, of parliamentary and other posts.

Out of revolutionary centralism the danger of bureaucratic centralism develops anew, on a higher plane, and becomes a hindrance, a fetter on the movement, and against it one must appeal to the revolutionary self-activity of the party ranks. Is this danger present today in the Communist International and its sections? Undoubtedly! Consequently, however, in this question today, too, it is not a matter of Lenin or Luxemburg, but Lenin and Luxemburg. This means that upholding the Leninist principle of revolutionary centralisation today demands a struggle against the bureaucratic, opportunist or ultra-left degeneration of into bureaucratic centralism, demands an appeal to the revolutionary self-activity of the membership of the Communist Party in the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg. In this struggle, however, we can also refer to Lenin, who began the struggle against party and state bureaucratism in the victorious Soviet state. These are only some examples for a general lesson that is still suitable for a variety of practical applications.

The party bureaucracy perceives Lenin and Luxemburg as opposed to each other and thereby proves that it has not understood either. We counterpose to the bureaucracy not only the formal but also the spiritual bond of these two great revolutionary champions of the working class and their closest comrades in arms, their mutual supplementary features as revolutionary leaders, as practicians and theoreticians. What unites them, is that they used the very same principle on different levels, situations and spheres of the great totality of the world revolution.

This whole also transcends the greatest individuals. The individual greatness of revolutionary leaders is also subject to the law of the dialectic: it exists only as much as it is not just an individual, but a general thing, as it participates in the greatness of the cause of the proletarian revolution. Where an attempt is made to bring it into play counter to, or independent from it, then the greatest individual talents and gifts shrivel up to a veritable zero, as shown by manifest examples.

Translated by Mike Jones with assistance from Theodor Bergmann and some additional tinkering by the editor.