Thursday, June 04, 2009

“Red” Rosa’s Prophecy

Rosa Luxemburg

In 1918 the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg penned a short pamphlet called The Russian Revolution, that outlined her views on the then happening Russian Revolution. I have previously mentioned her in a post about the Russian Revolution and here I want to discuss Rosa Luxemburg’s critique.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in a very assimilated Jewish family near the then border of Russian Poland in 1871.1

Rosa Luxemburg became involved in radical politics in Poland and strikes. And in the mid 1890’s began writing on Marxist theory. She was always a very radical thinker. Rosa Luxemburg did not believe in any sort of compromise with the “Capitalist” system.

For example she consistently opposed the “Revisionism” of the German Social Democratic Party that, in her opinion, fatally compromised with the status-quo. She was also a suspicious of and opposed to Nationalist movements believing them a snare and a diversion from the real struggle against “Capitalism”.

In 1898 she married a German by the name of Gustav Lübeck and moved to Germany, where she spent most of the remainder of her life.2 Rosa Luxemburg wrote various books on Marxist theory including The Accumulation of Capital, that sought to explain Imperialism and its effects.3

In 1914 she opposed Germany’s entry into World War I, and violently denounced what she saw as the treason of the German Social Democrats in supporting the war. Rosa Luxemburg left the party in disgust. Rosa Luxemburg was jailed for this during which time she wrote many letters, and articles.

Rosa Luxemburg was released in October of 1918 and with Karl Liebknecht founded the Spartakist party. In In January 1919, against her advice the Spartakists rose in revolt. The revolt was crushed and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were killed and their bodies dumped into a canal.4

As a thinker Rosa Luxemburg was an all too typical Marxist dogmatician of the time period with the usual superficial appeals to science and objectivity. Both of which this sort of thinking conspictiously lacked.

However unlike the case of Lenin and many others, Rosa Luxemburg had a great distrust of the idea of the “masses” being led around by the noses by a “enlightened” elite. Rosa Luxemburg believed both in the spontaneous action of the “masses” and in democratic control of politics and politicians. This was even more the case in that although Rosa Luxemburg had little use for either “bourgeois” Parliamentary democracy of “Bourgeois” freedom of the press. In both cases she thought that the solution was in one case a massive extension and deepening of democracy and in the other a similar massive extension and deepening of press freedom.5 Which was radically different from Lenin’s solution which was to abolish both and replace them by dictatorship and censorship / press control.6

In the fall of 1918 Rosa Luxemburg wrote her pamphlet The Russian Revolution. What we have is an uncompleted rough draft that Rosa Luxemburg’s death prevented her from revising and completing. It was published after her death. Since the Spartakist party that she founded was the germ of the German Communist party, there were periodic attempts to suppress and generally ignore this work which was considered rather embarrassing to the party hacks in awe of Lenin and later Stalin.7

It is important to remember that because of Rosa Luxemburg’s disputes with the intellectual leading lights of the German Social Democratic party that Rosa Luxemburg’s attitude was strongly coloured by her strong antipathy to the leadership of the Social Democrats and to those she perceived as their allies. The result was that because the German Social Democrats had in her eyes betrayed the cause of the “masses” by supporting the war she instantly disallowed their reaction that revolution was premature in Russia given that the economic and social forces were not conducive to a “Proletariat” revolution and the best that could be hoped for would be “Bourgeois” “Capitalist” revolution. Thus Rosa Luxemburg states:
In this, the Russian Revolution has but confirmed the basic lesson of every great revolution, the law of its being, which degrees: either the revolution must advance at rapid, stormy and resolute tempo, break down all barriers with an iron hand and place its goals ever further ahead, or it is quite soon thrown backwards behind its feeble point of departure and suppressed by counter revolution. To stand still, to mark time on one spot, to be contented with the first goal it happens to reach, is never possible in revolution.8
Of course it turns out that both the Russian Mensheviks and the leadership of the German Social Democratic party were right. Russia was indeed not in a position to have a “Marxist” style revolution. What Rosa Luxemburg forgot in both her enthusiasm for revolutionary activity and antipathy to the old guard leadership of the “Revisionist” Social Democratic parties, due to their support for their various countries in World War I, was that Revolutions frequently go too far. Finally from a strictly “Marxist” perspective the bottom line was that agricultural, autocratic Russia with its backward economy and social structures, poorly developed public institutions, with a huge peasantry and a small working class (proletariat) was one of the last places on earth for a “Marxist” social revolution to be successful. "Capitalism" the supposed precursor to “Socialism” was poorly developed in Russia. The Marxist critics of the Russian Revolution were merely being Marxists when they said a Marxist revolution in Russia was a Utopian illusion.9

Some of the points in Rosa Luxemburg’s essay seem both rather doctrinaire and short sighted. For example in her section on Bolshevik land policy she critiques the policy of the Bolsheviks in allowing the seizure of large landed estates and the subsequent division of the land among the peasantry. Rosa Luxemburg argues that this has created a large class of middle and “rich” peasants who will be enemies of the revolution. Rosa Luxemburg contends that the Bolsheviks should have nationalized the large landed estates and had the state run them. Aside from being dogmatic Rosa Luxemburg seems not to know that the Bolsheviks did not give the land to the peasants but merely ratified peasant seizure of the land. Any attempt to seize back or disallow the seizure would have been both counter productive and futile. Further Rosa Luxemburg does not seem to know that the source of peasant antagonism to the regime was not just simple greed for profit but the break down of industry in the period after the Bolshevik Revolution that left little with which to buy peasant produce so of course the peasants would not sell. Further the reckless policies of “War Communism”, which included road blocks and battalions of armed men going into the country side and seizing peasant produce was another, very real, source of peasant antipathy to the regime.10

In another chapter Rosa Luxemburg criticises the nationality policy of the Bolsheviks, especially the idea the different ethnic groups of the Russian Empire have a right to self determination. Like so many Marxists Rosa Luxemburg believed that nationalism was a type of false consciousness and that the “proletariat” had no country but only their “class interests”, and that Nationalism was basically reactionary. Interestingly Rosa Luxemburg took the statements of the Bolshevik about self determination seriously, when in actuality it was in reality different. That the Bolsheviks intended to use nationalism for their own ends and once the “proletariat” (i.e., the Bolsheviks seize power), self determination becomes nothing more than quaint cultural rights and real self determination becomes “bourgeois” and “reactionary”. Rosa was so welded to the dogmatic idea of the “class interests” of the “workers” / “proletariat” that she had no real conception of the power or basis of nationalism. This is probably at least partially based on the assimilated, secular upbringing she had. It left her with little feel for particular, national, ethnic or religious interests. For example she never felt any particular link or understanding of the particular interests of the Jews living in Czarist Russia.11

However it is the above mentioned chapter that Rosa Luxemburg’s fundamental criticisms of the Bolsheviks begin. For example:
While they showed quite cool contempt for the Constituent Assembly, universal suffrage, freedom of the press and assemblage, in short, for the whole apparatus of the basic democratic liberties of the people which, taken all together, constituted the “right to self determination” inside Russia, treated the right of self determination of peoples as a jewel of democratic policy for the sake of which all practical considerations of real criticism had to be stilled.12.
It is painfully clear that Rosa Luxemburg does not approve of the particular acts enumerated.

In another chapter13 Rosa Luxemburg discusses the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January of 1918. After making the rather the rather obvious point that before and during the overthrow of the Provisional Government in October of 1917 the Bolsheviks made much to do about the Provisional Government delaying the Constituent Assembly. Further the Bolsheviks made this one of the reasons for their overthrowing the government in October of 1917. The Bolsheviks, (i.e., Lenin and Trotsky gave has reasons the “fact” that the situation had changed decisively and that the assembly was out of date. Rosa Luxemburg writes about this “reason”:
All this is very fine and quite convincing. But one can’t help but wondering how such clever people as Lenin and Trotsky failed to arrive at the conclusion that follows immediately from the above facts.

…then it follows automatically that the outgrown and therefore still-born Constituent Assembly should have been annulled, and without delay, new elections to a new constituent Assembly should have been arranged.14
Rosa Luxemburg then deals with Trotsky’s objections to representative institutions, that they only reflect passing moods, and are not attuned to the pace of events or what is really going on. Of course it is painfully obvious that Trotsky is simply using this as an excuse to eliminate representative institutions that might impede single party rule. Rosa Luxemburg denies this:

Yet how all historical experience contradicts this! Experience demonstrates quite the contrary: namely, that the living fluid of the popular mood continuously flows around the representative bodies, penetrates them, guides them.

It is precisely the revolution that which creates by its glowing heat that delicate, vibrant, sensitive political atmosphere in which the waves of popular feeling, the pulse of popular life, work for the moment on the representative bodies in most wonderful fashion.15
Rosa Luxemburg concludes:

To be sure, every democratic institution has its limits and shortcomings, things which it doubtless shares with all other human institutions. But the remedy which Trotsky and Lenin have found, the elimination of democracy as such, is worse than the disease it was supposed to cure; for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come the correction of all innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammelled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people.16
In another chapter17 Rosa Luxemburg criticises the Bolshevik policy of restricting the right to vote to those who work with their own hands and eliminating the right to vote for members of “hostile classes”. Rosa Luxemburg considers those policies wrong headed and counter productive. Rosa Luxemburg writes:

For those attacks (on democratic rights), the arguments of Trotsky cited above, on the cumbersome nature of democratic electoral bodies, are far from satisfactory. On the other hand, it is a well-known and indisputable fact that without a free and untrammelled press, without the unlimited right of association and assemblage, the rule of the broad mass of the people is unthinkable.18
The next chapter,19 The Problem of Dictatorship, is basically a short masterpiece of political analysis which damns the entire Communist, Marxist-Leninist experiment right at birth.

Rosa Luxemburg accuses the Bolsheviks of denying the “masses” the experience that is necessary for them to exercise political power just when such experience is in fact most necessary. In one outstanding passage Rosa Luxemburg talks about freedom:

Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege.20
Thus does Rosa Luxemburg damn both one party states and severe restrictions of press freedom in such states.

Rosa Luxemburg further states:

The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of the dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – not the case.21
This being the case Rosa Luxemburg contends that public control and freedom is absolutely necessary in order to work things out. Lack of public input will only make things vastly more difficult. For Rosa Luxemburg the Lenin / Trotsky idea of “Socialism” is that it can “be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals.”22

Regarding Lenin’s methods Rosa Luxemburg states

But he is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconic penalties, rule by terror – all these things are but palliatives. The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralizes.23
In this uncannily prophetic passage Rosa Luxemburg sees the future all to clearly:

When all this is eliminated, what really remains? In place of the representative bodies created by general popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of the laboring masses. But with the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without un-restricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins (the postponement of the Soviet Congress from three-month periods to six-month period!) Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc. (Lenin’s speech on discipline and corruption.)24
Thus within the first year of the Bolshevik’s taking power a very radical thinker, very sympathetic to the Bolshevik’s goals, saw where their methods were leading and uncannily saw the future of the Leninist style of political party and a pattern that was to be, with monotonous regularity, duplicated around the globe for the next 60+ years.

After this the final chapters of Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet are a bit of a let down. However Rosa does have a few pertinent things to say about the use of terror to deal with corruption and social breakdown.

Indeed, every persistent regime of martial law leads invariably to arbitrariness, and every form of arbitrariness tends to deprave society.

Against this, [corruption, social breakdown] draconian measures of terror are powerless. On the contrary, they cause still further corruption. The only anti-toxin: the idealism and social activity of the masses, unlimited political freedom.25
In the last chapter26 Rosa Luxemburg attacks her “revisionist” enemies in the German Social Democratic party and the Bolsheviks. It is fascinating to record that her idea of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” is not rule by a cast of politicians but “class” rule by workers which “…means in the broadest public form on the basis of the most active, unlimited participation of the mass of the people, of unlimited democracy.”27

Rosa Luxemburg then deals with Lenin and Trotsky’s attacks on “Bourgeois” democracy and agrees with them but says that does not mean eliminating democracy altogether but to create real or “Socialist” democracy. For Rosa Luxemburg Democracy:

…it [democracy] does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and the construction of socialism.

But this dictatorship [i.e., the class rule of the “Proletariat”] must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of that class -...28
Rosa Luxemburg then proceeds to attack the Social Democrats for being partially responsible for what happened in Russia and also mentions that the rather disastrous external situation did not help the Bolsheviks very much. Rosa Luxemburg does mention that she is worried the Bolsheviks may:

Make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by those fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.29
That is exactly what happened. For the next 60+ years Moscow sought to mold every so called Marxist-Leninist (Communist) party in precisely this way with disastrous effects all over the world.

The last page and half are a sort of backhanded hymn to the Bolsheviks for having dared to try a “Socialist” revolution, and given Rosa Luxemburg’s antipathy to both “Revisionism” and “Capitalism” not a surprise but still in the context of the work as a whole it is faint praise indeed.

Rosa Luxemburg’s Pamphlet was basically ignored by all save a few radical leftists and was an embarrassment to her former colleagues in the Spartakist party who help found the Communist party of Germany which was slavishly submissive to Russia. It is hard to believe that Rosa Luxemburg would have had much truck with the Soviet Union and given her then formidable international reputation probably very fortunate for Soviet efforts to create Communist parties in Western Europe that she was murdered in 1919, by a right wing death squad. It was so much better to have her as a dead martyr than eloquent opponent.

As for the cogency of her prophecies. They were all too accurate. Much of the history of the twentieth century was a bloody working out of the Bolshevik “mistake”. If Rosa Luxemburg was in many ways a dogmatic thinker in this instance she saw without blinkers and what she saw appalled her.

1. See Wikipedia, article, Rosa Luxemburg, Here

2. IBID.

3. A copy can be found at the Rosa Luxemburg, Internet Archive, Here

4. See Footnote 1.

5. IBID.

6. See Farber, Samuel, Before Stalinism, Verso, London, 1990, pp. 19-61 & 90-112.

7. Luxemburg, Rosa, The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1961, pp. 15-24. A copy can be found at the Rosa Luxenburg, Internet Archive, Here

8. IBID. p. 36.

9. See Ulam, Adam B., The Bolsheviks, Collier Books, New York, 1965, pp. 343-381, Leonhard, Wolfgang, Three Faces of Marxism, Paragon Books, New York, 1970, pp. 47-94, Kolakowski, Leszek, Main Currents of Marxism: 2. The Golden Age, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978, pp. 332-336.

10, See Luxemburg, pp. 41-46. See also Figes, Orlando, A People's Tragedy, Penguin Books, New York, 1996, pp. 608-630.

11. Luxemburg, pp. 47-56, See also Leonhard, pp. 60-62, Kolakowski, pp. 88-94, 398-405.

12. Luxemburg, p. 48.

13. IBID. 57-62.

14. IBID. p. 59.

15. IBID. pp. 60-61.

16. IBID. p. 62.

17. IBID. pp. 63-67.

18. IBID. pp. 66-67.

19. IBID. pp. 68-72.

20. IBID. p. 69.

21. IBID. p. 69.

22. IBID. p. 71.

23. IBID. p. 71.

24. IBID. p. 72-73.

25. IBID. pp. 74-75.

26. IBID. pp. 76-80.

27. IBID. pp. 76-77.

28. IBID. pp. 77-78.

29. IBID. p. 79.
Pierre Cloutier

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