A response to Reid Cane’s “Leninism or Luxemburgism?”

IMAGE: El Lissitzky, Monument
to Rosa Luxemburg (1919)


The following is a response to some critical remarks made by Reid Kane on his blog, The Luxemburgist, in an entry entitled “Leninism or Luxemburgism?”.  Reid was responding in this post to some comments I’d made on a different entry, in which I objected to his opposition of Vladimir Lenin’s articulation of a Marxist politics to that of Rosa Luxemburg.  These are, after all, two organizational models that have frequently been held up as antithetical.  I asserted that their split had been grossly exaggerated by both Stalinists seeking to discredit Luxemburg’s former colleagues and anti-authoritarian/anti-Bolshevik tendencies in the New Left, who exalt Luxemburg as an heroic “alternative” to Lenin.  Reid provides a thoroughgoing, reasoned critique of my objection, maintaining that it is not enough to ignore their differences merely because their disagreements have been blown out of proportion.  In this I cannot but agree.  The differences between Luxemburg and Lenin cannot simply be glossed over.  And so, though this topic has been dealt with countless times by writers on the Left, I feel it is not too much to add my own thoughts on the matter here, in response to Reid’s excellent post.

Lenin and Luxemburg were both devoted revolutionaries and political theorists working toward a project of global socialist emancipation. They did not always agree, and where they didn’t, they were unreservedly critical of each other. Each polemicized with the other in the same aggressive and uncompromising fashion they would with anyone else. Lenin had no problem voicing his disagreements with Luxemburg, even in the aftermath of her tragic murder, declaring in his 1922 work Notes of a Publicist that

Paul Levi now wants to get into the good graces of the bourgeoisie — and, consequently, of its agents, the Second and the Two-and-a-Half Internationals — by republishing precisely those writings of Rosa Luxemburg in which she was wrong [The Russian Revolution]. We shall reply to this by quoting two lines from a good old Russian fable: “Eagles may at times fly lower than hens, but hens can never rise to the height of eagles.” Rosa Luxemburg was mistaken on the question of the independence of Poland; she was mistaken in 1903 in her appraisal of Menshevism; she was mistaken on the theory of the accumulation of capital; she was mistaken in July 1914, when, together with Plekhanov, Vandervelde, Kautsky and others, she advocated unity between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; she was mistaken in what she wrote in prison in 1918 (she corrected most of these mistakes at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 after she was released).

Here Lenin briefly outlines all of his major points of disagreement with Luxemburg, clearly remaining steadfast in his opposition to her stance on these issues.  I do not know enough about Luxemburg’s theory she lays forth in The Accumulation of Capital to comment on Lenin’s criticisms of it.  Regarding the unity she advocated (along with Kautsky and others) between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in 1914, I am fairly sure that in hindsight Luxemburg would agree that this was an unwise suggestion, especially following the Mensheviks’ widespread defection to the counter-revolutionary forces of the White Army in 1918.  Of the points Lenin mentioned above, the problem of nationalities was probably the one in which the two were most at odds. Indeed, after 1904, Luxemburg’s main criticisms of Lenin are no longer that of party organization but of the line that must be taken toward national independence movements. Regardless, it is obvious from the above that Lenin continued to regard Luxemburg as “mistaken” in these affairs. But he immediately followed those remarks by stating that

in spite of her mistakes she was — and remains for us — an eagle. And not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works (the publication of which the German Communists are inordinately delaying, which can only be partly excused by the tremendous losses they are suffering in their severe struggle) will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world. “Since August 4, 1914, German Social-Democracy has been a stinking corpse” — this statement will make Rosa Luxemburg’s name famous in the history of the international working class movement. And, of course, in the backyard of the working-class movement, among the dung heaps, hens like Paul Levi, Scheidemann, Kautsky and all that fraternity will cackle over the mistakes committed by the great Communist. To every man his own.

Even if one were to come down decisively on the side of Lenin in all of these debates, however — as Trotskii, Shachtman, and Lukács do (I tend to prefer the Luxemburgian stance toward national independence movements, myself) — there is still at least one point in which Luxemburg’s position is indisputably superior to Lenin’s. This regards her extremely critical position vis-à-vis Kautsky in the German Social-Democratic Party from as early as 1903-1904. As Trotskii himself pointed out in “Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg!”, his 1932 defense of the Luxemburgian legacy against Stalinist distortions, Lenin at first considered Bernstein’s revisionism to be the only opportunist tendency operative in German Social-Democracy. Insofar as Kautsky was one of the staunchest critics of the Bersteinian tendency at this time, Lenin revered Kautsky and even regarded him as his teacher. It was only following Kautsky’s betrayal of the 1907 Lenin-Luxemburg anti-war amendment in 1914 that Lenin came to despise him. During this same period, Trotskii observed, “Rosa Luxemburg was to be found in opposition to the Kautsky and Bebel Central Committee, and her fight against the formal, pedantic, and rotten-at-the-core ‘radicalism’ of Kautsky took on an ever increasingly sharp character.” After he learned that Kautsky had in fact signed on to the 1914 patriotic declaration he wrote emphatically in a letter to Shliapnikov (cited by Trotskii) that “I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy…Rosa Luxemburg was right when she wrote, long ago, that Kautsky has the ‘subservience of a theoretician’ servility, in plainer language, servility to the majority of the party, to opportunism.”

As for Luxemburg’s earlier criticisms of Lenin’s answer to the question of organizational policy in 1904, Luxemburg would later retract the accusation she made in that article of Blanquism on the part of the Bolsheviks, going so far as to defend them from similar charges that Plekhanov leveled at them in 1906.  Contrary to her initial position, summed up by her statement that “[Lenin’s] centralism is a mechanical transposition of the organizational principles of Blanquism into the mass movement of the socialist working class,” Luxemburg now wrote that she

would dispute comrade Plekhanov’s reproach to the Russian comrades of the current “majority” [bolshevik/большевик of course literally means "majority"] that they have committed Blanquist errors during the revolution. It is possible that there were hints of them in the organizational draft that comrade Lenin drew up in 1902 [What is to be Done?], but that belongs to the past — a distant past, since today life is proceeding at a dizzying speed. These errors have been corrected by life itself and there is no danger they might recur.

Here there can be no doubt that Luxemburg had come full circle in terms of her critical assessment of Bolshevik party organization written two years earlier.

Lenin, moreover, made clear in his reply to Luxemburg (which Kautsky chose to leave unpublished), “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back”, that his advocacy of centralism and the concept of the party as a professional, conspiratorial revolutionary vanguard was a specific adaptation to the objective historic conditions of Russian autocracy. (The language of the party constituting a “vanguard” was, of course, itself an early Kautskian formulation). The maintenance of an openly revolutionary party having been declared illegal in Russia, coupled with the effectiveness of infiltration tactics taken by the tsarist police, forced Lenin to opt for a smaller, more secretive revolutionary organization. Far from recommending it as a universal model of party organization, an example to be followed by Marxist parties in all countries, Lenin clearly specified that his famous work on the subject, What is to be Done?, was intended as a response to a crisis within Russian Social-Democracy.  He wrote:

Comrade Rosa Luxemburg’s article in Nos. 42 and 43 of the Neue Zeit is a criticism of my Russian book [What is to be Done?] on the crisis in our Party…The reader who takes the trouble to make a first-hand study of the struggle in our [Russian Social-Democratic] Party will readily see that, concretely and practically, Comrade Rosa Luxemburg’s talk about ‘ultra-centralism,’ about the need for centralization to be gradual, and the like, is a mockery of our Congress. [my emphases]

In light of this qualification, Luxemburg would thus seem to have been in error when she later warned that “[t]he danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics,” a passage Reid cites from her posthumously published pamphlet on The Russian Revolution.  Lenin, Trotskii, and the other major Bolshevik leaders were proposing no such generalization of organizational policies arising specifically out of the Russian context.

It is true that the twelfth condition of the Twenty-One Conditions for entry into the Third International, issued in June 1920, required that parties belonging to it adopt the organizational principle of democratic centralism, but added that this was only a temporary measure meant to respond to the extreme circumstances presently at hand: “In the present epoch of acute civil war the communist party will only be able to fulfill its duty if it is organised in as centralist a manner as possible, if iron discipline reigns within it.”  This point was reiterated in the sixteenth condition, but added that local factors would have to be considered: “The Communist International, acting under conditions of the most acute civil war, must be built in a far more centralist manner than was the case with the Second International.  In the process the Communist International and its Executive Committee must, of course, in the whole of its activity, take into account the differing conditions under which the individual parties have to fight and work, and only take generally binding decisions in cases where such decisions are possible [my emphasis].”  Here, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not merely generalizing conditions specific to Russia; the third condition explained their conviction that

In almost every country in Europe and America the class struggle is entering the phase of civil war. Under such conditions the communists can place no trust in bourgeois legality. They have the obligation of setting up a parallel organizational apparatus which, at the decisive moment, can assist the party to do its duty to the revolution. In every country where a state of siege or emergency laws deprive the communists of the opportunity of carrying on all their work legally, it is absolutely necessary to combine legal and illegal activity.

“Civil war” is here understood as not simply divided along territorially discrete lines (though this often was the case), but as war within civil society.  It is to be the unveiling of what Marx referred to as “the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution.”  And this “civil war” was certainly not limited to Russia at the time.  In November 1918, a naval mutiny quickly fanned the flames of revolution across Germany, largely sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause.  The Social-Democrats, in a brazen act of treachery, collaborated with the Supreme Command of the German Army in order to quell this rebellion. In January the next year Luxemburg and Leibkneckt joined the striking workers in Berlin in their attempted takeover of the Ebert government, until the Spartacist Uprising was finally crushed by the Freikorps.  Despite their loss, a Bavarian Soviet Republic was established in April 1919 before being brutally put down by the German military.  In March 1919, Béla Kun successfully staged a communist revolution in Hungary (in which Lukács also participated), which spread into a large part of Czechoslovakia only three months later.  French and Romanian forces hastened to remove the communists from power, succeeding in August that same year.  Communist uprisings, characterized by mass strikes and workers’ militias, took place in Italy between 1919 and 1920, popularly referred to as their Biennio Rosso, or “Two Red Years.”  This, of course, was shortly thereafter followed by the fascist seizure of power by Mussolini.  All across Europe, it appeared as if civil war was about to break out.  This was the context within which the Twenty-One Conditions were issued.

Lenin, for his part, never claimed that his policy of democratic-centralist vanguardism should be followed in all cases, in every time and every place.  Quite the opposite: as Max Shachtman noted, Lenin wrote Max Levien in 1922, when the latter proposed to translate What is to be Done? into languages other than Russian, that “[your proposal to translate this work] is not desirable; the translation must at least be issued with good commentaries, which would have to be written by a Russian comrade very well acquainted with the history of the Communist Party of Russia, in order to avoid false application.”

Even though she was mistaken in issuing her unwarranted admonition (“[t]he danger begins…”), however, Luxemburg displayed her characteristic integrity in refusing to fault Lenin, Trotskii, and the Bolsheviks for resorting to authoritarian tactics in their desperate attempt to carry out the revolution.  Instead, she placed the blame squarely on the European proletariat, and even more on the hypocrisy and complicity of Marxist parties in Germany and the West.  This was the context within which Luxemburg issued her warning, which Reid also provides, where she says in the same breath that

[e]verything that happens in Russia is comprehensible and represents an inevitable chain of causes and effects, the starting point and end term of which are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism. It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions. The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics. When they get in [their] own light in this way, and hide their genuine, unquestionable historical service under the bushel of false steps forced on them by necessity, they render a poor service to international socialism for the sake of which they have fought and suffered; for they want to place in its storehouse as new discoveries all the distortions prescribed in Russia by necessity and compulsion — in the last analysis only by-products of the bankruptcy of international socialism in the present world war.

Let the German Government Socialists cry that the rule of the Bolsheviks in Russia is a distorted expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat. If it was or is such, that is only because it is a product of the behavior of the German proletariat, in itself a distorted expression of the socialist class struggle. All of us are subject to the laws of history, and it is only internationally that the socialist order of society can be realized. The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of historical possibilities. They are not supposed to perform miracles. For a model and faultless proletarian revolution in an isolated land, exhausted by world war, strangled by imperialism, betrayed by the international proletariat, would be a miracle. [my emphasis]

Luxemburg understood the extreme measures (i.e., War Communism) taken by the Bolsheviks to be a practical necessity imposed on them by the failure of the European proletariat to rise up and finally put an end to the capitalist social formation.  The Bolsheviks, whose organizational policy had already been shaped by conditions peculiar to the Russian Empire, now found themselves forced into even more extraordinary circumstances by the lack of a more general European revolution.  The Bolshevik leaders hardly considered the policies of War Communism they pursued in the chaos of the Civil War to be ideal, let alone a normative model for other nations to follow.

Despite her reservations regarding the Bolshevik course of action earlier in the year, Luxemburg later emphatically spoke out in the closing months of 1918 in support of their revolutionary efforts, asserting its genuinely proleterian character.  In her famous speech “On the Spartacus Programme”, delivered December 31st, 1918, she declared:

We should not forget [that the impulse to form revolutionary councils (soviets) came from the Bolsheviks] when we are confronted by those who shower calumnies on the Russian Bolsheviks, and we must answer: “Where did you learn the ABC’s of your present revolution? Was it not from the Russians that you learned to demand workers’ and soldiers’ councils?”…Those pygmies who today, as heads of what they falsely term a German socialist government, make it one of their chief tasks to join with the British imperialists in a murderous attack upon the Bolsheviks, also formally base their power on the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, thereby admitting that the Russian Revolution created the first mottoes for the world revolution. On the basis of the existing situation, we can 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.

This excerpt should remove all doubt as to her faith in the Bolsheviks’ commitment to the revolutionary struggle.  To be sure, had Luxemburg survived to see the further unfolding of the Civil War and the ensuing setbacks to the achievement of the European revolution, I suspect she would issued further criticisms of Lenin and the Bolsheviks if she felt it was appropriate.  Luxemburg was never one to back down from a good argument, and was unafraid of making her views known.

[A related discussion to the one taken up here can be found in a subsequent post.]



Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg’s Position on the Russian Revolution (1922) [not online]

Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectic, “Chapter 7: Critical Observations on Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Critique of the Russian Revolution ’” (1922)

Karl Korsch, “Lenin and the Comintern” (1924)

August Thalheimer, “Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin?” (1930)

Leon Trotskii, “Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg!” (1932)

Max Shachtman, “Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg” (1938)

Tim Wohlforth, “Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg!” (1962) [same title as Trotskii’s piece, a very interesting piece]

Jim Higgins, “Luxemburg and Lenin” (1966)

Ernest Mandel, The Leninist Theory of Organization: Its Relevance for Today, “Chapter 4: The Revolutionary Vanguard and Spontaneous Mass Action” (1970)


Iosif Stalin, “Some Questions Concerning the History of Bolshevism” (1931) [to be sure, there are far more admirable writers who also held Lenin and Luxemburg to be incompatible]

Paul Mattick, “Introduction to Anti-Bolshevik Communism” [AKA “Luxemburg versus Lenin”] (1935)

Walter Held, “Why the German Revolution Failed” (1942-1943)

Bertram Wolfe, “Rosa Luxemburg and V.I. Lenin: The Opposite Poles of Revolutionary Socialism” (1961)

Paul Mattick, “Rosa Luxemburg Remembered” (1978)

5 thoughts on “A response to Reid Cane’s “Leninism or Luxemburgism?”

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  5. This is very interesting article, nicely done. There was no political dispute that existed between Lenin and Luxemburg that would have made their co-existence in a single party impossible. To claim that these two great revolutionary leaders were some kind of political polar opposites whose political ideas stood fundamentally opposed to each other is to falsify the historical record. You have done a very good job of placing this “argument” between two very closely allied revolutionary Marxists into its historical context as well. Of course, Rosa Luxemburg would not have had access to many of the letters and documents you present here at the time she was writing her critique of what was, it appears to us, to have been a mistaken idea that the Bolsheviks were espousing the universal applicability of the Bolshevik programme. Events were transpiring at lightning speed as this dispute was going on; it was not being carried out via email but via “snail mail”, during wartime and under wartime censorship and all the chaos of the world war & the turmoil inside Russia. This was not a discussion taking place in a cozy off-campus Starbucks over lattes and biscotti, as today’s discussions are. And isn’t it typical how much more confusion over the history of the Russian and German communist movements is created in this much more “refined” and casual atmosphere of 2013? Some people simply refuse to learn the lessons of history, no matter how obvious they appear to be; they have, after all, axes to grind, books to sell and tenure to retain, and therefore must create mountains out of molehills and try to pull the revolutionary “eagles” down to the environs of their own chicken-shit-covered henhouses in order to misunderstand them better. You will also notice that these pseudo-Marxist “hens” are not, for the most part, troubling themselves with the hard, dirty work of building revolutionary workers parties, either. The pseudo-Marxist “hens” don’t like having their wings clipped by actual proletarians, as happened on the rare occasions when the “hens” attempted to participate in the Occupy movement. Their “comfort zone” isn’t the factory floor, it’s the college campus, where everyone knows their “place”: the “hens” teach, and the students “learn” – it is never the other way around. Lenin and Luxemburg lived not in the world of the college “quads” but in the rough and tumble of the proletarian world. They gave their lives fighting, not for a seat across a desk from John Stewart or for a tete-a-tete with George Soros in Davos but for the emancipation of the world’s working class; they were not looking to write best-sellers or to become “famous” or to procure a nice living by tailoring their political ideas to order for the disaffected, artsy, bohemian petty-bourgeois (and bourgeois) “salons” of Europe and the Americas. “To each his own”, indeed.

    Independent Workers Party of Chicago

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