Heroic, but surely flawed

Her life and her legacy

Mike Macnair asks whether the modern ‘new left’ use of Luxemburg is part of the problem rather than the solution

Rosa Luxemburg was a heroine and martyr of the workers’ movement: a leader of the left in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD); imprisoned for her political activities in Germany in 1904 and Poland in 1906; a standard-bearer of anti-war socialism from 1914; imprisoned once again in 1915 and again 1916-18; a founder of the German Communist Party; and finally murdered by the SPD’s far-right allies in the aftermath of the failed uprising in Berlin in 1919.

In the ‘official’ communist movement and fully ‘orthodox’ Trotskyism, Luxemburg was remembered this way - as a fighter, heroine and martyr. But she was also thought of as a defender of flatly erroneous views: ‘spontaneism’ on the questions of the party, its organisation and leadership; an ultra-left (and perhaps Lassallean ‘one reactionary mass’) view of the peasantry and the agrarian question; a view of the national question which was ultra-left sectarian or even “imperialist-economist” (Lenin’s tag); and, perhaps related, a fundamentally mistaken understanding of Marx’s ‘reproduction schemes’ in Volume 2 of Capital, which produced a radically misconceived theory of imperialism.

For the ‘new left’ which emerged after 1956, the Stalinist campaign against ‘Luxemburgism’ in the later 1920s and 1930s1 made Luxemburg’s actual ideas more attractive. She combined impeccably revolutionary credentials with criticisms of Bolshevism: in her 1904 ‘Organisational questions of Russian social democracy’2 and in her 1918 draft The Russian Revolution (published after her death by Paul Levi on his road back to the SPD).3 These could make her appear as foreseeing Stalinism. For the ‘new left’ she could thus be combined with the young Lukács of History and class consciousness, with the young Gramsci, with ‘left’ and ‘council’ communist critics of the Comintern (Pannekoek, Korsch and so on).

In particular, emphasis could be placed on her 1906 work attempting to make the SPD learn lessons from the 1905 Russian Revolution, The mass strike, the political party and the trade unions, and on her, and Anton Pannekoek’s, polemics with Kautsky in 1910-12 over ‘mass action’ versus parliamentarism and the ‘strategy of attrition’.4 This debate could be read as offering a critique of the policy of the western mass ‘official communist’ parties, which had evolved (through force of circumstances in the cold war, rather than explicit choices) into something rather like Kautsky’s ‘strategy of attrition’.

In the 1960s-70s Luxemburg’s ideas could also be idiosyncratically combined with elements of Maoism in western ‘soft Maoism’ or ‘Mao-spontaneism.’ In this context her theory of imperialism could re-attain respectability, and it continues to have some influence: for example on David Harvey’s The new imperialism (Oxford 2003).

If ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ had common ground with ‘official’ communism on the ‘Luxemburg question’, a substantial part of the Trotskyist movement engaged with, and eventually became more or less part of, the ‘new left’. The International Socialists, forerunners of the British Socialist Workers Party, in the 1960s came close to identifying themselves as ‘Luxemburgists’. Both factions of the Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International identified to some extent with Luxemburg: the US SWP, centre of the Leninist-Trotskyist Tendency, in 1970 published Mary- Alice Waters’ edited collection Rosa Luxemburg speaks; Ernest Mandel, one of the leaders of the European-led International Majority Tendency, in 1971 offered a substantial article on ‘Rosa Luxemburg and German social democracy’ in Quatrième Internationale.5

By these routes a certain reading of Luxemburg has become the common inheritance of the modern far left: she is the woman who diagnosed what was really wrong with the SPD and the Second International, before Lenin or Trotsky understood the problem. Her polemic against Eduard Bernstein, Social reform or revolution (1900), is still recommended reading for the left, where the contributions of Parvus, Kautsky and Plekhanov to this debate are left to specialist historians; and the polemical jabs of Belfort Bax round the question of imperialism, which forced Bernstein’s views into the open, are almost written out of left accounts of the history.6 The mass strike, similarly, remains on the far left’s reading lists.

Luxemburg is commonly rolled together with Lenin and Trotsky among the ‘classical Marxists’ or ‘Second International left’, as she is by British SWP-tradition authors like Dave Renton and John Rees, and by Platypus authors;7 or with Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and the young Gramsci, as in Paul Le Blanc’s 1996 collection From Marx to Gramsci. The effect is, perhaps paradoxically, to assimilate these other authors to Luxemburg’s and Pannekoek’s arguments in 1906 and 1910-12, as interpreted after Luxemburg’s death by Lukács and Korsch.

This may be true for the young Gramsci, and perhaps for the Trotsky of 1904, but it is certainly not true for Lenin or the later Trotsky. Lenin’s, and Trotsky’s, definite non-acceptance of these arguments in 1910-12 is a matter of record. This tends to be treated by supporters of the view of a unified ‘Second International left’ either as a mistake due to the failure of Lenin and Trotsky to break openly with Kautsky until 1914, or as a manoeuvre in the complex internal struggles of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party. Lenin’s sharp polemic against the real inheritors of the 1910-12 Luxemburg-Pannekoek line (including Pannekoek himself) in Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder (1920) is ‘out of the picture’.

SDKPiL sect

The modern far left’s ‘Luxemburg narrative’ contains an important silence. Luxemburg was not only a leftwing activist in the SPD. She was also one of the co-founders and central leaders - along with her partner of a good many years, Leo Jogiches (aka Tyszka), and with Julian Marchlewski (Karski) and Adolf Warszawski (Warski) - of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland. In 1899 this merged with the Union of Workers of Lithuania to become the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), bringing Felix Dzerzhinsky into the central leadership.

The SDKPiL was a plain bureaucratic-centralist sect . Mandel’s article at least admitted that Luxemburg “had simultaneously fought against Lenin’s ‘ultra-centralism’, whilst tolerating Leo Jogisches’ iron regime in her own underground Polish Workers Party”. But it was not just a matter of ‘tolerating’ Jogiches: it was Luxemburg who argued after 1906 for SDKPiL organisational control of illegal trade unions, a policy which destroyed SDKPiL political influence in the emergent unions.8

The 1906 split in the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) separated Józef Pi?sudski’s pure-nationalist terrorist ‘Frak’ and drove the other wing, the mass movement-oriented PPS-Left, to the left. Luxemburg wrote the polemics using the agreed ultimatistic line on behalf of the SDKPiL executive, demanding from the PPS-Left complete acceptance of the SDKPiL’s anti-nationalism before any unity - even trade union unity - would be possible.9

The SDKPiL split in 1911 when the leadership expelled critics who dissented on these two issues and aligned with the Bolsheviks on all-Russian issues. The primary charge was holding an unauthorised Warsaw inter-district conference to elect an equally unauthorised local leadership.10 The leadership proceeded to bring factitious charges of theft against Karl Radek, which Luxemburg had to drag into the SPD to get Radek expelled from that party.11

In the end the two wings of the SDKPiL, and the PPS-Left, did unite in 1918 to form the Polish Communist Party; but if the SDKPiL supplied some famous leaders, it was the PPS-Left which supplied much of the cadre and base.

Why is this an “important silence”? The importance of the issue is that the modern far left has created many such sects: precisely “two, three, many SDKPiLs”. In a certain sense, overcoming this problem is the fundamental issue of our time.

And Luxemburg?

The question this poses is how far Luxemburg’s ideas on working class strategy may be connected to her and her co-thinkers’ sectarian practice in the Polish workers’ movement.

I should say at once that I do not have a clear and unambiguous answer to this question. I have argued previously that the ‘general strike strategy’, even in the form of the more fluid analysis of Luxemburg’s The mass strike, attempted to dodge the problem of political authority, and hence, in the conditions of revolutionary crisis which it addressed, failed to answer the urgent need of the masses for some governmental solution to the crisis.12 This weakness, however, does not in itself imply sect formation.

There is, also, a historical correlation between syndicalism and direct actionism and sectism: beginning with Bakunin’s ‘invisible dictatorship’, also visible pre- 1914 in Anglo-Saxon DeLeonism, and in the 1920s in the ‘left’ and ‘council’ communists after their splits from Comintern, as well as in the modern far left. I have argued before that this correlation reflects a real connection, albeit what can best be called a ‘law of tendency’, rather than a strict logical entailment. That is, that the concept of revolution involved promotes a party practice of a kind which drives towards a high level of central control, which in turn forces differences to lead to splits.13 Was the sect character of the SDKPiL an instance of this dynamic?

I am not in the least inclined to go back on these judgments, that the ‘mass strike’ or ‘direct action’ orientation does not represent a viable strategic alternative for the working class to the class-collaborationist reformism of most of the mass workers’ parties and trade unions; and that the same ‘mass strike’ or ‘direct action’ orientation in the modern far left works as part of a self-reinforcing dynamic of sectarianism and bureaucratic centralism.

However, I pose these issues in relation to Luxemburg as questions rather than answers. The question is how far the modern far left’s version of Luxemburg as an icon of its own ‘revolutionary Marxism’ involves not only airbrushing out the SDKPiL, but also an oversimplification of Luxemburg’s ideas about the party and the revolution.

Her academic social-scientist biographer, Peter Nettl, argued that Luxemburg from 1898, when she moved to Germany, led in effect a double life, holding her activities in the Polish leadership and in the SPD completely separate. For Nettl this assisted in structuring what would otherwise be a confusing biography, as he treats German matters and Polish and Russian matters separately. It can, however, hardly be true. The SDKP-SDKPiL sought to build in Russian Poland an imitator in broad terms of the SPD - as Lars Lih has put it of the Iskra group project in Russia, an “Erfurtian” party.14 Conversely, though Luxemburg avoided holding a formal position in the SDKPiL leadership, her interlocutors in the German SPD cadre cannot have been unaware of her involvement in Polish and Russian affairs, since she had first become prominent in the international through her heretical position on the Polish question, wrote on Poland for Neue Zeit and other periodicals, and continued to raise Polish matters in the SPD and international down to the Radek case in 1912 and the issue of attempts to reunify of the Russian RSDLP in 1914.

The SPD had survived illegality in the 1880s and built itself through the line that it was a revolutionary party, but not one which set out to make an immediate revolution. Rather, capitalism itself was heading for a general breakdown, Zusammenbruch or Kladderadatsch; up until this happened, the party’s task was simply to build the organised workers’ movement as the strongest possible force in society; when it happened, the SPD and the workers’ movement more generally would be there to pick up the pieces and reshape them in a way which gave political power to the working class.

Luxemburg’s initial intervention in the SPD’s internal debates, Reform or revolution, was precisely a defence of this line, even if the reflections in chapter 8 on the “conquest of political power” depart to some extent from the pattern of the Zusammenbruch concept by rejecting the idea that attempts of the working class to take power could be ‘premature’.15 In The accumulation of capital she was still defending the Zusammenbruch, if moving into the territory of linking the tendencies to breakdown to the rise of imperialism.

The mass strike was not just about teaching the Germans Russian lessons about what would happen in a real revolutionary crisis, but also carried with it the message: Zusammenbruch is coming closer, and you need to be prepared for it.

I make these points to emphasise the extent to which Luxemburg’s polemics as well as her actual German activities (writing for the SPD press, speaking at meetings, electoral campaigning) took the SPD, its existence as an enormous mass movement and its underlying strategic line for granted.

There are two possible interpretations of this statement. The first is a positive one: that we should read Luxemburg’s polemics before 1914 as limited critiques of the SPD’s current tactics on the basis of an assessment that revolutionary crisis was coming nearer, which accepted a common universe of discourse, rather than - as post-1919 users often have - as global, or cosmos-level, critiques of the SPD.

The second would be a negative one: it would be that Luxemburg wrote in the way she did because she took the SPD for granted and did not understand how the strategy related to what was objectively involved in building a mass party. This negative reading would make Luxemburg more like Trotsky, who similarly ‘freelanced’ in the pre-1914 period, and admitted after 1917 that he had never before 1917 understood the party question. There is some support for this negative view in the 1904 Organisational questions of Russian social democracy - and in the history of the SDKPiL.

Either way, the modern ‘new left’ use of Luxemburg seems likely to be a part of the far left’s problems, not of any possible solution.


1. Usefully discussed in P Nettl Rosa Luxemburg Oxford 1969, Vol 2, pp798-820. This book is a cold war product whose analysis is based on the sociology of Weber and Talcott Parsons, and thus has to be read with considerable caution, but it is well documented for the facts of Luxemburg’s life and political activity, and on this issue, though its more general historical claims are often unreliable.

2. Published in English in 1961 by the ex-‘right com­munist’, then cold war warrior, Bertram D Wolfe, under the pointed title ‘Leninism versus Marxism’.

3. Also included in Wolfe’s pamphlet.

4. Largely available in German on the Neue Zeit website (http://library.fes.de/nz/index.html); or a substantial selection in French in H Weber (ed) Socialisme: la voie occidentale Paris 1983; only fragments are on the Marx­ists Internet Archive.

5. www.ernestmandel.org/en/works/txt/1971/rosa_lux­emburg.htm.

6 . Partial collection in H Tudor, JM Tudor (ed and trans) Marxism and social democracy Cambridge 1988; several of Plekhanov’s interventions are on MIA at www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/index.htm.

7. See my review of Renton’s and Rees’s books in Weekly Worker September 11 2003; and for Platypus, see C Cutrone, ‘Defending Marxist HegelianismWeekly Worker August 11 2011, and the prior debate referred to there.

8. P Nettl op cit Vol 2, pp575-76; the effects on the SDKPiL’s influence are discussed by R Blobaum Feliks Dzier?i?ski and the SDKPiL New York 1984, chapters 8-9.

9. P Nettl op cit Vol 2, pp562-65; R Blobaum op cit pp184-85.

10. R Blobaum op cit pp200-02.

11. Ibid pp206-08; see also P Nettl op cit Vol 2, pp585- 90.

12. M Macnair Revolutionary strategy (2008), chapter 2; also ‘Spontaneity and Marxist theoryWeekly Worker September 6 2007, ‘Leading workers by the nose’, September 13 2007, ‘Anarchist origins of general strike slogan’, March 17 2011.

13. ‘End the cycle of splitsWeekly Worker May 24 2012.

14. LT Lih Lenin rediscovered (2006) chapter 1. On the SPD building itself in German Poland, see P Nettl op cit Vol 1, pp133-34. In Galicia (Austrian Poland) there was another set of groups - see R Kuhn Henryk Grossmann and the recovery of Marxism Champaign 2007, chapters 1-2.

15. www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/ch08.htm.