Rosa Luxemburg - in her own words

Ben Lewis introduces what is to be a short series of newly translated articles

Ninety years ago, on January 15 1919, one of the greatest revolutionaries of the 20th century, Rosa Luxemburg, was killed by the Freikorps - a freelance paramilitary outfit formed by rightwing officers after the defeat of Germany in World War I. They acted with the full encouragement of the coalition government headed by Fredrich Ebert and Gustav Noske (both members of the Social Democratic Party). There were thousands of other such victims, not least Karl Liebknecht. A trail of blood that led all the way to Hitler.

Possessing theoretical, literary and political talents which no one else in the newly formed Communist Party of Germans (KPD) equalled, her death was a massive loss, including to the international workers’ movement. The funeral procession, organised by the KPD and others, was one of the biggest workers’ demonstrations ever seen in German history, with hundreds of thousands following her coffin. Even today thousands turn out for the annual commemoration in honour of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

Yet, as with any important historical figure, her legacy has been distorted and her views misrepresented to justify various opportunist projects. Thus the reformist Die Linke effectively controls the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung) and nowadays  heads the memorial marches in Berlin. This despite advocating politics that in reality are not that far removed from those of the 1919 Social Democratic Party.

Luxemburg was, to use the words of Lenin, “an eagle” of Marxism who soared above the political collapse and theoretical degeneration of the Second International and did all in her power to uphold the integrity of Marxism. As Trotsky put it, she “had mastered the Marxist method like the organs of her body. One could say that Marxism ran in her bloodstream”.

Our series of articles covers a wide range of themes and questions revealing various elements of Luxemburg’s Marxism. We begin with two appraisals of Ferdinand Lassalle’s life by Luxemburg. They provide an interesting insight into this complex man who laid the foundations of the SDP.

Next will come a scornful polemic against the ‘father of Russian Marxism’, Georgi Plekhanov, a report of the 1913 SPD congress (which was refused publication in the party press) and finally reflections on Leo Tolstoy - one of her favourite writers and someone she would always recommend to comrades, friends and even her prison guards. In each of her articles, Rosa’s writing is infused with a rare passion that brings each and every word to life, whether she is discussing the particulars of the German tax question or how the masses moved onto the historical stage.

It is a historical tragedy that many of the writings of this great Marxist are not available in English. Indeed, this reflects a general problem: much of classical Marxism’s achievements - including whole books as well as theoretical articles, journalism and polemics - have suffered the same fate. Thinkers exerting a strong influence on Lenin and Trotsky such as Karl Kautsky, Alexander Parvus, and many others beside, cannot be fully read in English. This might go some way to explaining the widespread and deep-rooted ignorance about their ideas. Yet if Marxism is to be cleansed of all the ideological garbage it has accumulated after a century of defeat, then making such works available for critical study is crucial.

In this respect, the short series of articles we are publishing is a contribution towards what needs to be done. Much credit must go to Ted Crawford of the Marxist Internet Archive (www.marxists.org), who spends so much of his time and effort facilitating the translation and transcription of such material. We are very grateful to him for pointing out some of the untranslated works. All of our texts will appear on the MIA site, as will others I am working on by Luxemburg and other important Marxists.

Lassalle and the revolution

This March 1904 article was written for a volume commemorating Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64). He founded the General German Workers’ Association in 1863, the first German workers’ party. This organisation merged with the Social Democratic Workers Party headed by Karl Liebknecht and August Bebel in 1875, later becoming the Social Democratic Party

Lassalle’s immediate relationship with the March [1848] revolution has remained a mere fragmentary, almost fleeting, one.

This is partly because of his still relatively young age, but above all because of the peculiar concatenation of circumstances in his life which - for almost a decade - chained him to the individual fate of a woman badly abused by the dominant feudal powers and which have made his energy to the service of the revolution highly disputed in this period.1 Not until the November crisis of 1848 was Lassalle able to play an exemplary part in the revolutionary struggles of the Rhineland. Immediately, however, he was snared by the Prussian judiciary, which only released him when the revolution was over.

But Lassalle’s historical connection with the March revolution does not end with his direct agitation during the ‘great year’: it was not even the main thing about it. Rather, it was the fact that Lassalle put into practice the most important historical consequence of the March revolution by finally releasing the German working class from the political conscription of the bourgeoisie and organising it into an independent class party.

As is well known, the specific manner in which Lassalle carried out this immortal task has been met with sharp and often well deserved criticism from Marx. “He made big mistakes,” wrote Marx to Schweitzer in 1868. “He allowed himself to be influenced too much by the immediate circumstances of the time. He made the minor starting point, his opposition to the dwarf-like Schulze-Delitzsch, the central point of his agitation - state aid versus self-help. The ‘state’ was, therefore, transformed into the Prussian state. He was thus forced to make concessions to the Prussian monarchy, to Prussian reaction (the feudal party) and even to the clerics.”2

Yet Lassalle’s great deed - accomplished both in spite of and through these mistakes - is not reduced, but actually grows in significance with the historical perspective from which we observe it. That Lassalle understood how to see through the inner misery of bourgeois liberalism and to expose this ruthlessly and almost brutally in front of the working class - especially at a time when this liberalism was still, after all, daring to engage in something akin to a struggle with the crown and the Junker reaction - this service will in this sense be ever greater in the eyes of the historians and the politicians, for since then the bourgeoisie has achieved the miracle of sliding, year on year, further down beyond the depths where it stood even back then.

And if still today, until quite recently, if only sporadically and fleetingly, illusions in a new upswing, an Indian summer of bourgeois liberalism, the cooperation and common struggle of the proletariat were conceivable, the more groundbreaking Lassalle’s noble deed will become, as he did not hesitate for a second in showing the German proletariat the way to independent class politics through the rubble of liberalism stemming from the time of conflict - a liberalism that, of course, towers above the liberalism of today.

In his tactics of struggle, Lassalle certainly did make mistakes. Yet emphasising mistakes in a great life’s work is the trite pleasure of petty peddlars of historical research. Far more important in judging someone’s personality and the impact of their work is to ascertain the actual cause or the specific source from which both their errors and virtues resulted. In many cases, Lassalle transgressed in his tendency to ‘diplomacy’ or ‘ploys’, such as in his deals with Bismarck on the introduction from above of general suffrage or in his plans for cooperatives funded with state credit. In his political struggles with bourgeois society, as well as in his judicial struggles with the Prussian judiciary, he happily fought on the enemy’s territory, appearing to make concessions in his point of view. A sassy, noble acrobat, as Johann Phillip Becker wrote, he often dared to jump right to the edge of the abyss that separates a revolutionary tactic from collaboration with reaction.

But the cause that led him to these audacious leaps was not inner insecurity, an inner doubt of the strength and practicability of the revolutionary cause that he represented, but on the contrary an excess of confident belief in the unconquerable power of this cause. Lassalle sometimes went over to the ground of the opponent in the fight, not in order to relinquish something of his revolutionary goals, but, on the contrary, in the deluded belief that his strong personality would suffice to wrest away so much from his opponent for those revolutionary goals, that the ground beneath his opponent’s feet would cave in.

When, for example, Lassalle grafted his idea of cooperatives funded by state credit onto an idealistic, unhistorical fiction of the ‘state’, the great danger of this fiction was that in reality he merely idealised the wretched Prussian state. But what Lassalle wanted to impose on it in terms of the tasks and duties of the working class would not only have shaken the miserable shack that is the Prussian state, but the bourgeois state in general.

The wrong - one might say the opportunistic - aspect of the Lassallean tactic was that he aimed his demands at the wrong audience. Yet his demands did not as a result diminish and disintegrate in his hands: they grew more and more. And if he preferred to reduce the whole fight to a few militant slogans - on the general right to vote and the productive associations, for example - then it was not an excess of patience, which would have meant abandoning the sea of socialist demands for piecemeal bourgeois reforms, but his impatience, on the contrary, which drove him to concentrate all forces on one or a few particular points of attack in order to cut short the long historic process.

So the mistakes of Lassallean tactics are those of an aggressive attacker, not a ditherer. They are those of a daring revolutionary, not a fainthearted diplomat.

In every period there are people - and there are also such people today - who only believe in the possibility and the timeliness of a revolution when it has already happened. Such people grasp world history not by observing its face, so to speak, but its behind. Lassalle belonged to that great generation, at the top of which Karl Marx shone, in which belief in the revolution was alive in all its power. Not merely in the sense that in the 1850s Lassalle, like Marx and Engels, still confidently expected the return of the March revolutionary wave in Europe, but above all in the sense that he lived in the rock-solid conviction of the validity and inevitability of the proletarian revolution.

He constantly listened to the ‘the march of worker-battalions’ in the historical storming of the bourgeois order of society, right in the middle of the everyday struggle and the guerrilla war with the Prussian judiciary and police. And he knew perfectly well that the only adequate guarantee of the victorious course of this struggle lay in the proletarian mass itself. Even if he did not arrive at this conclusion by way of historical materialist research, as Marx did, but rather by way of philosophic-idealistic speculation, he provided the German working class, in complete harmony with Marx’s teaching, with one of its most important signposts in their class struggle when he, in contrasting parliamentary reformism to revolutionary mass action, said: “A legislative assembly never has overthrown and never will overthrow the existing order. All that [such an] assembly has ever done and ever been able to do is proclaim the existing order outside, sanction the already completed overthrow of society and elaborate on its individual consequences, laws and so forth … Spoken more realistically, in the last instance revolutions can only be made with the masses and their passionate devotion” (my emphasis - RL).3

In a few months, on August 31, to be precise, 40 years will have passed since Lassalle’s death. He and his life’s work, judged for so long in a varied and sometimes contradictory manner, are now available for the German working class in full and exhaustive clarity - and indeed both in mortal and immortal forms - in Bernstein’s commentary and in Mehring’s works.

Had his sudden death not taken him away after such a short and bright life, it is doubtful whether Lassalle would be have been able to orient himself in today’s movement and claim his position as a leading and powerful spirit in this completely changed environment. “Events”, he wrote shortly before his death, “will develop very slowly, I fear, and my glowing soul takes no pleasure in these children’s illnesses and chronic tasks.”4 Yet history has hardly ever suffered from a more disgusting infantile illness than the current period of bourgeois-feudal parliamentarianism, which the modern proletariat in Germany and all capitalist countries is damned to wade through and penetrate if it is to overcome it. Lassalle’s personality was simply not made for this period of the struggle.

But the contemporary proletarian mass movement needs that “glowing soul”, which shone in Lassalle and still breathes in each of his written words, all the more today. That soul, in Lassalle’s words, will alone be able to “clench the whole power into a fist”, and, at the crucial moment, overcome bourgeois society and achieve victory.


1. This refers to Sophie Gräfin von Hartzfeld, who sought to divorce her cheating husband. Lassalle met her at the age of 20 and took up her case in 36 court cases between 1846 and 1854.
2. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1868/letters/68_10_13.htm
3. F Mehring (ed) Der Literarische Nachlass von Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels und Ferdinand Lassalle Vol 4, Stuttgart 1902.
4. E Bernstein (ed) Lassalles Reden und Schriften Vol 1, Berlin 1892, p179.

Lassalle’s legacy

First published in the SPD women’s magazine Die Gleichheit (Equality) No18, 1913, pp275-77

“Hutten’s error was merely that of all prophetic natures: namely to view and desire at once a shining ideal, which humanity can only achieve step by step and bit by bit after centuries of struggle.”

With these words, David Friedrich Strauss closes his novel Hutten. And what applies to Hutten also applies to Lassalle in the same degree. Of course, centuries do not come into consideration in the speedy development of contemporary capitalist development. But what Lassalle managed to wrestle from history in two years of flaming agitation needed many decades to come about. Yet it is precisely this optical illusion - which all prophetic natures succumb to, and causes them like giants from the top of their mountain to imagine the far away horizons to be within their grasp - we must thank for the bold deed from which German social democracy emerged.

The emergence of an independent class party of the proletariat was an historical necessity, stemming from the capitalist economic system and the political nature of the bourgeois class state. German social democracy would have arisen with or without Lassalle, just as the class struggle of the international proletariat would have become the predominant factor of recent history with or without Marx and Engels. Yet the fact that the German proletarian class party already appeared at the gates with such radiance and splendour 50 years ago, more than two decades before all other countries, and acted as a role model for them, is thanks to Lassalle’s life work and his maxim: ‘I dared!’

Class struggle has been the driving force at the core of world history ever since private property separated human society into exploiters and exploited. The modern proletariat’s struggle is merely the last in the series of class struggles running like a red thread through written history. And yet the last 50 years offers something that world history had not seen before: for the first time the spectacle of the great mass of the exploited emerging in an organised and purposeful struggle for the liberation of their class. All previous revolutions were those of minorities in the interest of minorities. And, as the first movements of the proletariat in England and France initiated modern class struggle, the masses would step onto the stage only for a few moments and then melt away in the revolutionary downturn and become absorbed in bourgeois society over and over again.

Brought into existence by Lassalle, German social democracy was the first historic attempt to create a permanent organisation of the masses, the majority of the people, for class struggle. Thanks to Lassalle’s political action and thanks to Marx’s theory, German social democracy has radiantly solved this new task. Its 50-year history has proved that on the basis of proletarian class interests it is possible to unite the ultimate goal of revolution with patient day-to-day struggle, to unite scientific theory with the most sober praxis, to unite tight and disciplined organisation with the mass character of the movement, to unite insight into historic necessity with conscious, dynamic will. The present-day size and power of social democracy is the fruit of this unity.

The history of social democracy hitherto can be quickly summarised as the utilisation of bourgeois parliamentarianism for the enlightenment and centralisation of the proletariat into its class party. On this track, from which it never allowed itself to be lured either by brutal emergency laws or demagogic cunning, our party has advanced decade after decade to become by far the strongest political party in the German empire and the strongest workers’ party in the world. In this sense, the last 50 years have seen the implementation of Lassalle’s action programme, which was concentrated on two closely linked aims: the creation of a class organisation of the workers, independent of the liberal bourgeoisie; and the achievement of universal suffrage, in order to put it to the service of the workers.

The construction of this organisation and the systematic utilisation of universal suffrage - this was more or less Lassalle’s legacy, and the lifeblood of social democracy over the last 50 years.

This programme has just about been pushed to its limits, where, according to the law of the historical dialectic, quantity must transform into quality, where the unstoppable growth of social democracy, on the ground of and in the framework of bourgeois parliamentarianism, must eventually transcend this.

Germany’s capitalist development, like that of the entire world economy, has now reached a point where the conditions in which Lassalle accomplished his great task appear as a clumsy child. Whereas back then in Europe, the framework of bourgeois national states was still being fashioned to suit the unrestricted rule of capital, today the last non-capitalist lands are being swallowed up by the imperialist monster, and capital is crowning its world dominance with a chain of bloody expansionist wars.

From its birth onwards, bourgeois parliamentarianism on the European continent was ridden with impotence through fear of the red spectre of the revolutionary proletariat. Today, it is being crushed by the iron hooves of rampantly galloping imperialism; it becomes a hollow shell, degraded to an impotent appendage of militarism.

In 50 years of exemplary work, social democracy has pretty much taken everything it could from the now stony soil in terms of material profit for the working class and class enlightenment. The most recent, biggest electoral victory of our party1 has now made it clear to all that a 110-person-strong social democratic faction in the era of imperialist delirium and parliamentary impotence, far from achieving more in terms of agitation and social reforms than a faction the quarter of its size in the past, will achieve less.

And the hopeless foundering of the hub of Germany’s internal political development today - voting rights in Prussia - has destroyed all prospects of parliamentary reform through mere pressure of electoral action.

Both in Prussia and in the empire, social democracy in its entire force is rendered powerless as it comes up against the barrier which Lassalle already foresaw in 1851: “A legislative assembly never has overthrown and never will overthrow the existing order. All that [such an] assembly has ever done and ever been able to do is proclaim the existing order outside, sanction the already completed overthrow of society and elaborate on its individual consequences, laws, etc. Yet such an assembly will always be impotent to overthrow the society which it itself represents.”2

We, however, have arrived at a level of development where the most pressing and imperative defensive demand of the proletariat - the right to vote in Prussia and the people’s militia in the empire - signify an actual overthrow of existing Prussian-German class relations. If the working class wants to pursue its life interests in parliament today, then it has to carry out this actual overthrow “outside”. If it wants to make parliamentarianism fertile again, then it has to lead the masses themselves onto the political stage through non-parliamentary action.

The last decade - with the mass strike resolution in Jena under the influence of the Russian Revolution and the campaign of street demonstrations in the struggle for the right to vote in Prussia three years ago - clearly shows that the transition from purely parliamentary to unstoppable mass action will force its way through - even if the consciousness of the party in Germany, as elsewhere, only follows this path unevenly, encountering many setbacks.

The 50th anniversary of German social democracy represents a proud, victorious completion of Lassalle’s political testament. Yet simultaneously it is also a warning to the socialist proletariat to become fully conscious that nothing would be more contrary to Lassalle’s spirit than following its well-worn routine at its usual steady pace and stubbornly clinging to a tactical programme which has already been overtaken by the course of history.

Lassalle’s great creative work consisted in recognising the correct task of the proletariat at the right historical hour and daring to fulfil this with bold action. What is today the just continuation of Lassalle’s work? Not clinging to Lassalle’s political programme, but rather recognising the new great tasks of the contemporary situation and boldly tackling them at the right moment. Then, in the spirit of Lassalle, it can also say of itself: ‘I dared!’


1. F Mehring (ed) Der Literarische Nachlass von Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels und Ferdinand Lassalle Vol 4, Stuttgart 1902, p38.
2. The resolution passed at the SPD conference from September 17-23 1905 in Jena characterised the most extensive use of the mass withdrawal of labour as one of the most effective working class methods of struggle, but nevertheless restricted the use of the political mass strike to a considerable extent to defending the right to vote to the Reichstag and freedom of assembly.