Luxemburg: Rosa and the republic

Last weekend, Ben Lewis spoke at an international conference in Paris on ‘Rosa Luxemburg’s concepts of democracy and revolution’. This is an expanded version of his paper

This presentation forms part of ongoing research into the origins and evolution of the political programmes of the German workers’ movement, in which I am attempting to grapple with some particularly controversial topics and concepts within Marxism, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, republican democracy, the fate of the minimum-maximum programme, soviets, parliament and much more besides.

What I intend to do here is to analyse Rosa Luxemburg’s understanding of democracy by taking a closer look at the programme of the young Communist Party of Germany (KPD), otherwise known as ‘What does the Spartacus League want?’,1 as well as her final speech before she was murdered, ‘Our programme and the political situation’,2 which she presented to the founding congress of the KPD on New Year’s Eve 1918. According to her comrade, Paul Frölich, the speech was “convincing, gripping, stirring and inspiring. It was an unforgettable experience for all who were present”.3

My criticisms notwithstanding, I wish to make the argument that Luxemburg’s strategic point of departure in her final days represented a continuation of a revolutionary-republican, democratic tradition within Marxism - something that she fought to uphold against both putschist and reformist tendencies within the workers’ movement of the time.

Indeed, when in January 1919, Karl Liebknecht, the very embodiment of proletarian internationalism in the German movement, sought to seize power in the name of a small and unrepresentative ‘Revolutionary Committee’ in Berlin without the knowledge of the KPD leadership, Luxemburg’s response, “Is that our programme, Karl?”,4 highlighted one consistent aspect of her Marxism: an understanding of revolution as an act of self-liberation on the part of the majority, with clear aims and goals, that culminates in the conscious rule of the working class. Not that of some enlightened minority taking power in the name of the people.

This basic approach also found clear expression in the KPD programme: “The Spartacus League [KPD - BL] will never take over governmental power except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany, never except by the proletariat’s conscious affirmation of the views, aims and methods of struggle of the Spartacus League”.

Indeed, in his meticulous study of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Marxism - a term mangled, misinterpreted and distorted by both Marxist and anti-Marxist thinkers alike - the American Trotskyist scholar, Hal Draper, has convincingly argued that Luxemburg was perhaps the only Marxist of her time to “consistently and without exception” use it “in the manner of Marx and Engels”. According to Draper, for Marx, Engels and Luxemburg, the term meant “a workers’ state with no implication that it necessarily entailed special dictatorial measures without which it could not be called a dictatorship”.2 The liberal and social democratic nonsense about “Bloody Rosa” can thus be seen for the calculated and cynical defence of capitalist state violence that it is. Yet how did Luxemburg’s championing of radical democracy find expression during the tumultuous events of the German revolution, and where exactly do these views place her in the history of Marxist revolutionary thought?

Marx and Engels

Showing how seriously Luxemburg took both the study of history and the writings of Marx and Engels, her New Year’s Eve 1918 speech on the political situation soon proceeded to discuss their legacy on strategy, looking at Engels’ controversial 1895 introduction to the German edition of Marx’s Class struggles in France.5

Among other things, in this work Engels dealt with the development of his and Marx’s strategy since 1848 and underscored the importance of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) exploiting all legal avenues not least parliament in order to expand its forces and extend the reach of its message. Unknown to Luxemburg at the time, this preface had to be watered down to avoid a state crackdown, meaning that passages outlining how the SPD should not “fritter away this daily increasing shock force in vanguard skirmishes [street fighting - BL], but to keep it intact until the decisive day” were cut altogether. On occasion this made Engels appear to be some sort of advocate of the old ‘growing over into socialism’ outlook, whereas his actual strategy was premised on destroying the old order.

Engels was livid, protesting in a letter to Kautsky that the edited version had presented him as a “peaceful worshipper of legality at any price”.6 Engels was for using parliament, even one as powerless and ineffectual as the German Reichstag, but not for cosying up to the kaiser’s constitutional order, let alone spreading the illusion that socialism could be built within that framework. Luxemburg was obviously unaware of the existence of Engels’ letter - the full edition of the ‘Introduction’ was only published in 1955.

Yet she could smell a rat. Luxemburg insisted that the betrayal of August 4 1914, when the SPD’s parliamentary fraction approved war credits, could not be laid at the feet of Engels, but she did argue that aspects of the legalist and constitutional approach in the watered down version paved the way for the SPD’s subsequent drift to the right. In short, this drift entailed the gradual erosion of German social democracy’s programme, with the ‘minimum’ demands gradually deemed ‘too advanced’ or insufficiently ‘popular’ for the masses under capitalist conditions and increasingly transformed into ‘maximum demands’ - high politics and socialism were thus pushed further into the future: a “distant guiding star”, to use Luxemburg’s apt phrase. A series of hollowed out day-to-day demands is how most historians and activists generally view the minimum programme today, yet it must be said that we have been looking at this programme through the wrong end of the telescope.

After all, an examination of some of Engels’s (unadulterated!) writings makes it clear that, for him, the culmination of the political demands of the minimum programme represented working class rule, something almost inseparable from the ‘democratic republic’. In his largely positive critique of German social democracy’s Erfurt programme, he emphatically states: “If one thing is certain, it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic.”7

This “democratic republic” was synonymous with “the form for the dictatorship of the proletariat”,8 he declared, or, as Marx put it, the “political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour”;9 the “last state form of bourgeois society”, in which “the class struggle will be fought out to the end”.10 Drawing on the experience of the Paris Commune, the first workers’ government, Marx and Engels argued that this state was defined by several features, such as a single legislative and executive assembly, the regular elections of officials, including judges, recallability, workers’ wages for bureaucrats, the armed people and so on.

Many of these demands were also present in the Erfurt programme. For Engels, the programme’s main shortcoming was in the fact that the democratic republic was absent: “The political demands of the draft have one great fault. It lacks precisely what should have been said. If all the 10 demands were granted we should indeed have more diverse means of achieving our main political aim, but the aim itself would in no wise have been achieved.”

Councils central

Both Luxemburg’s speech and the KPD programme accord with the revolutionary republican spirit outlined by Engels in this and similar writings. The programme’s first political demand calls for a republic (albeit in the form of a “united German socialist republic”, which we shall discuss below).

It also demands the disarming of the police and the establishment of a Red Guard of “male proletarians”, the abolition of rank and command within the army and calls for an “executive council” as the “highest organ of legislative and executive power” - to be elected by a central council of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils that shot onto the political scene after the collapse of the Kaiser regime in November 1918. In turn, these councils were to be elected by all adult men and women, with emphasis on control from below through regular elections, rotation and recallability.

In her speech, Luxemburg does a wonderful job of lampooning the new German constitution being proposed by the SPD leadership. She savaged the new constitution’s presidentialism (“the election of a president who is to have a position intermediate between that of the king of England and that of the president of the United States”!) and checks and balances against popular pressure in the form of federalism and a second chamber, the Bundesrat.

Nonetheless, with the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen that the KPD programme’s sole focus on the council system as the alternative to the new constitution was quickly overtaken by the course of events, perhaps even rendering the programme outdated within a couple of weeks.

For whatever particular reasons, the majority of the German population was not striving to replace parliamentary democracy with council democracy. Indeed parliamentary democracy was no longer a mere fig leaf for kaiserdom and was for the first time based on universal suffrage. There was a substantial turnout in the national assembly elections of January 1918. Women in particular, having gained the right to vote, were eager to participate. The workers’ and soldiers’ councils were overwhelmingly built by members of the two main workers’ parties: namely the SPD and the left-centrist split from it, the Independent Social Democrats, to which Luxemburg and her supporters had belonged until December 1918. As such, the fate of these councils was determined by the political evolution of these parties.

From 1914 till 1918 the SPD remained the majority party in the working class. As such it was able to win most of the councils to its outlook. The SPD leadership’s approach, of course, was to use its power within the council system to gradually restore capitalist order (doing a deal with the German high command, attempting to disarm the council movement, repressing the Bolshevik revolution in the east), while offering some (on occasion quite substantial) reforms, including abolishing the hated Prussian three-class voting system and conceding the eight-hour day.

This shift of political gravity from the councils to the new parliamentary constitution, which in turn was premised on the kind of brutal suppression of the councils actually predicted by Luxemburg in her speech, ensured that the sole focus of the KPD on the councils as the basis of workers’ power in Germany was to leave it in a difficult strategic position. This was doubtless compounded by the fact that Luxemburg’s forces, and others committed to genuine working class rule, were still marginal and/or unorganised.

Again with the benefit of hindsight it can be seen that some of these weaknesses resulted from the fact that the Communist Party of Germany was born both too late11 and too early: subsequently, leading KPD members like Clara Zetkin and Paul Levi agreed that the KPD split from the Independent Social Democrats (USPD), had little to no effect on the ranks of the USPD that had played such a pivotal role in Germany’s revolutionary upheavals. Luxemburg’s life-long collaborator, Leo Jogiches, even opposed the foundation of the party, rightly arguing that they had formed a group with little by way of a social base, that was going to boycott the coming elections and that had only avoided deciding that its members should leave the official German trade unions by way of postponing the vote! Only with the Halle Congress of October 1920 - ie, the merger with the left wing of the USPD - could the KPD be seen as a real party.

At any rate, the fact that the KPD programme had little to offer by way of an alternative to the constitution and the national assembly - beyond replacing it with a system of councils - was bound up with an incorrect assessment of what lay ahead. It is clear both from her speech and from her correspondence that Luxemburg misjudged the immediate situation. So convinced was she of the depth of the crisis in the German state, the level of disillusionment with the SPD and USPD leaders and the power of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils that she thought that the national assembly elections might not even take place at all. Urging Clara Zetkin not to be too concerned about the young KPD’s decision to call a boycott, Luxemburg wrote, just eight days before the elections: “In reality, the rush of events has put the question of [participating] in the national assembly on the back burner and, if things continue in this way, it is highly doubtful whether there will be elections and a national assembly”.12

Luxemburg seems to have been convinced that the “first stage” of the German revolution had now passed and was now moving onto the “second stage”, which was to be characterised more by its economic than its political content. As she puts it, “No government, however admirably socialist, can inaugurate socialism”. In a certain sense, of course, this is correct, reflecting a clear rejection of the SPD-USPD joint provisional government formed in November 1918. For all the talk of ‘socialism’ on the part of these self-styled ‘people’s commissars’, this government was actually seeking to act as a caretaker for a German capitalist state and class in disarray. In fact the commissars themselves were not ministers in the new government - the old state bureaucracy and the military top brass remained masters of the situation. While this often led to disgust among the rank and file of both the SPD and USPD, with the USPD commissars even being forced to resign in late December following an armed assault on worker militants in Berlin, the two parties would nonetheless remain dominant for some time to come.

Luxemburg had misjudged the mood of the masses. Yet there can be no doubt that she did not misjudge or misrepresent the revolutionary spirit of Marxism. In this she towers above the former ‘pope of Marxism’, Karl Kautsky. For all that she and Kautsky may have sung from the same hymn sheet in fighting the pro-capitalist coalitionism of Alexandre Millerand and co at the end of the 19th century, a cursory look at Kautsky’s writings in this period, such as his ‘Guidelines for a socialist action programme’ or ‘Driving the revolution forward’,13 make it clear that, in marked contrast to some of his earlier writings, he was disingenuously deploying key Marxist terms like the ‘democratic republic’ and the ‘minimum programme’ to provide left cover for the Millerandism of the hour: the actions of the joint SPD-USPD government.

Content and form

This may account for another central thread of Luxemburg’s speech: namely, that the minimum programme had to be “liquidated”. Her approach here was obviously bound up with her false assessment of the immediate situation, as I have just outlined. Yet despite all that happened in the course of the two revolutionary months in 1918, the German working class was not in power (despite Kautsky’s spurious claims to the contrary) or, I would argue, in any real position to immediately challenge for it. For some time there was a situation of dual power, but the working class lacked the organisation, strategy and consciousness necessary to resolve this positively. To the extent that one strategy was hegemonic, it was that of the SPD leadership. Against Luxemburg, then, I would argue that ‘Down with the wages system!’ was not the slogan of the hour. This approach clearly informed the KPD’s call for the “united socialist republic” or the fact that, much more bizarrely, Karl Liebknecht had actually proclaimed the socialist republic in November 1918!14

Interestingly, Luxemburg’s assertion that the minimum programme should be discarded and that the workers should “seriously set about destroying capitalism” were (quite independently, as far as I can tell) echoed in the Russian revolutionary movement. In the run-up to the October revolution, Nikolai Bukharin and his supporters contended that the minimum programme of the Russian communists was obsolete. What was posed, for them, was beginning the realisation of the maximum programme of human liberation. Lenin’s response provides a better, less rash, more realistic perspective:

“It is ... ridiculous to discard the minimum programme, which is indispensable while we still live within the framework of bourgeois society, while we have not yet destroyed that framework, not yet realised the basic prerequisites for a transition to socialism, not yet smashed the enemy (the bourgeoisie), and even if we have smashed them we have not yet annihilated them ... Discarding the minimum programme would be equivalent to declaring, to announcing (to bragging, in simple language) that we have already won.”15

The absence of such a Leninist approach left the KPD with very little to fall back on strategically, other than promoting and supporting strikes and clashes between workers and employers, with Luxemburg (erroneously in my view), describing these conflicts as the “external form of the struggle for socialism” - perhaps an echo of her earlier view that the mass strike, “a natural historical phenomenon”, represents “the first natural, impulsive form of every great revolutionary struggle of the proletariat”.16

Luxemburg was undoubtedly correct that “It is sheer insanity to believe that capitalists would good-humouredly obey the socialist verdict of a parliament or of a national assembly”, yet in my opinion there is no natural form of proletarian revolution. It can take the form of mass strikes, military collapse and rebellion, a revolutionary party or parties winning a huge vote and so on.

The differing experiences of 1871 (an election to a local council) and 1917 (military rebellion, mass strikes, peasant unrest, soviets) underline this basic point. What is crucial is the question of government: which forces, and on the basis of what political content, will crystallise to take the decisions necessary to break the inevitably ‘bad-humoured’ and vicious response of the capitalist class? This is perhaps the major problem with liquidating the minimum programme: it gets rid of the minimum terms on which the KPD’s participation in such a government could be made contingent - something that, it could be argued, would later come back to haunt the party as well.

We will never know how Luxemburg would have responded to the new political situation in the aftermath of the national assembly elections, as she was cruelly, brutally murdered four days before they took place. The young Communist Party was robbed of its brightest star.

Looking back, notwithstanding the consistent and pronounced republican aspects of Luxemburg’s thought, it is evident that her response to the betrayals of social democracy threw out the baby with the bathwater. Unlike Lenin and the majority of the Bolsheviks, she rejected the minimum programme as constitutionalist and bourgeois-parliamentarian by its very nature.17

Just as Draper argues that very few Marxists seem to have properly grasped what Marx and Engels meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat, it may be said that, similarly, there is a republican-democratic tradition in Marxism that was largely forgotten/misrepresented, or even consciously buried, in the Second International. The lack of clarity about the kind of republican-democratic government that social democracy was aiming for facilitated confusion in its ranks and perhaps even provided more favourable ground for the rise and spread of the opportunism that eventually finished off the Second International.



1. R Luxemburg, ‘What does the Spartacus League want?’: www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/14.htm.

2. R Luxemburg, ‘Our programme and the political situation’: www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/31.htm.

3. Quoted in MA Waters Rosa Luxemburg speaks New York 1970, p403.

4. However, Ottokar Luban’s detailed account of the ‘January days’ of 1919 underlines the general confusion in the KPD when assessing the political situation - something that also impaired Luxemburg’s judgement in deciding whether it was possible to overthrow the government in Berlin. See O Luban, ‘Rosa at a loss - the KPD leadership and the Berlin uprising of January 1919: legend and reality’ Revolutionary history 8, 4 (2004).

5. F Engels, introduction to K Marx Class struggles in France: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1895/03/06.htm.

6. Quoted in VI Lenin, ‘Dead chauvinism and living Marxism’: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/dec/12.htm#fwV21E042. Lenin, writing in 1914, actually quotes Engels’ letter to Kautsky.

7. F Engels Critique of the Erfurt programme: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm.

8. F Engels, introduction to K Marx The civil war in France London 1941, p19.

9. K Marx The civil war in France: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm.

10. K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch04.htm.

11. Only with the crisis of August 4 1914 did Luxemburg and her co-thinkers seriously set about organising some sort of coherent oppositional grouping to the SPD leadership based on a common outlook and programme.

12. Quoted in S E Bonner (ed) The letters of Rosa Luxemburg New Jersey 1993, p300.

13. For more on Kautsky’s hollowed out ‘republicanism’ of this time, see B Lewis, ‘From Erfurt to CharlottenburgWeekly Worker November 10 2011. My translation of ‘Driving the revolution forward’ will hopefully be published soon.

14. Some attribute this slightly voluntarist and moralist approach to Liebknecht’s neo-Kantian views, although it is clear that this approach found some support among revolutionary workers in Berlin in particular.

15. VI Lenin, ‘Revision of the party programme’: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/oct/06.htm.

16. R Luxemburg The mass strike chapter 7: www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/ch07.htm.

17.The fact that Kautsky had entertained the illusion that aspects of a modern capitalist state bureaucracy could be retained under socialism does not mean that it is outright false to argue, as he did in 1893, that “a real parliamentary regime can be just as well an instrument for the dictatorship of the proletariat as an instrument for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” (quoted in RB Day and D Gaido Witnesses to permanent revolution Leiden 2009, p55, note 159). Marx, for example, also saw the need to transform universal suffrage “from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation” (K Marx Programme of the French Workers Party: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm).