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Was Rosa Luxemburg an Opponent of the Russian Revolution?

Rosa Luxemburg is often presented as an opponent of the Russian Revolution, but this is a deliberate misunderstanding. In fact, she was no more and no less than a critical Bolshevik.

Nathaniel Flakin

January 15, 2021
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“Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters” or “the freedom of those who think differently.” This is by far the most well-known quote from Rosa Luxemburg. Wikipedia, for example, uses this quote to claim she “criticiz[ed] the Bolsheviks, presciently warning of their dictatorship.” Mitchell Cohen uses the same quote to make the same case about Luxemburg’s anti-Bolshevik defense of “freedom” in Dissent Magazine. But while the quote is well known, the pamphlet that contains it is not — and that pamphlet shows Luxemburg’s true position.

In the fall of 1918, Rosa Luxemburg was in prison in the Polish city of Wrocław, then known by the German name Breslau. The German Empire had kept her in “protective custody” for more than three years. Despite her isolation, she continued her work as a revolutionary leader from her prison cell. She analyzed German and international politics in the Spartacus Letters, while simultaneously leading the group that would soon found the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

After the Tsar was toppled in March 1917, Luxemburg followed the unfolding Russian Revolution with the utmost attention. She enthusiastically greeted the insurrection that brought the workers and soldiers’ councils (soviets) to power in early November:

The German workers are now called upon by history to take the message of revolution and of peace from East to West. No mere pursing of the lips will help here; real whistling is needed!1Rosa Luxemburg, Spartacus Letters, January 1918, quoted in: Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010).

Unprecedented Challenges

The Russian Revolution faced unprecedented challenges. As a partisan of the revolution, Luxemburg subjected every decision by the soviets to her astute critique. But she was not alone in this: there was constant debate in all the workers’ councils, and in all the structures of the Bolshevik Party. When the soviet government was forced to accept an onerous peace with the German Empire in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Luxemburg argued that there had been no alternative to this difficult decision:

it was only the pertinaciously slavish attitude of the German proletariat which compelled the Russian revolutionaries to make peace with German imperialism as the sole ruling power in Germany.2Ibid.

The Bolshevik Party was itself deeply divided over Brest-Litovsk — only an extremely slim majority voted in favor of accepting the German terms. Here Luxemburg sided with the party majority around Lenin. For her, it was clear that it was the German Social Democrats — who had supported the imperialist war since 1914 — who bore ultimate responsibility for any setbacks of the Russian Revolution.

In the fall of 1918, Luxemburg summarized her critique of the Russian Revolution in a lengthy document. But the outbreak of the revolution in Germany — the uprising reached Berlin on November 9, and Luxemburg was freed from prison that very day — prevented her from completing it.

The unfinished manuscript On the Russian Revolution ended up with Luxemburg’s lawyer, Paul Levi, who succeeded her as the KPD’s chariperson. Only when Levi broke with the KPD in 1921 did he publish the text as a pamphlet. Why didn’t Luxemburg publish it herself? Did she simply not find time in the turmoil of the revolution? (There were, after all, only two months between her release from prison and her assassination by proto-fascist paramilitaries under the orders of the Social Democratic government.) Her longtime comrade-in-arms Clara Zetkin later said that Luxemburg had deliberately decided against publication — she had changed her mind on certain key points.

There is no need to summarize the entire pamphlet here — it is well worth a read in the original. Luxemburg formulates criticisms of various decisions by the revolutionary government, such as the distribution of land to the peasants or the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. But all her criticisms are formulated within the framework of the revolution. The same positions were defended inside the soviet government and the central committee of the Bolshevik Party. Luxemburg was no more and no less than a critical Bolshevik.

Learning from the Revolution

Luxemburg’s criticism was notably reserved, distancing herself from the anti-Bolshevik propaganda of the Social Democrats and all opponents of socialist revolution in Germany. And as a historical materialist, she of course learned from both revolutions. In her critique of the Russian Revolution, she had defended the idea that there should be some kind of parliamentary assembly in addition to the workers’ councils — but when the same idea was proposed for Germany by Social Democrats like Karl Kautsky, she was vehemently opposed. Living experience had shown that a dual power between workers’ councils and a bourgeois parliament could only be temporary — those who wanted to have both inevitably ended up supporting parliamentarism and counterrevolution.

Even in this critical pamphlet, from which only that single sentence is ever quoted, Luxemburg’s passionate defense of the revolution shines through. There is a certain irony to the fact that the name of this immortal communist is now misused by a large reformist apparatus. Today’s government socialists like to pretend that Luxemburg was “against dictatorship” and “for democracy.” But she, just like Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky, was for a revolutionary dictatorship of workers’ councils in order to expropriate the bourgeoisie. 

In December of 1918, in the Rote Fahne (Red Flag), the KPD’s central organ, she wrote of the  “Constituent Assembly or Council Government?” as incompatible alternatives. Her attitude to bourgeois “democracy” could not be clearer:

What was considered equality and democracy until now: parliaments, national assemblies, equal ballots, was a pack of lies! Full power in the hands of the working masses, as a weapon for smashing capitalism to pieces – this is the only true equality, this is the only true democracy!

Against Government Socialists

This is why Luxemburg’s critique of the Russian Revolution was not directed primarily against Lenin and Trotsky, but rather against German Social Democrats like Ebert, Scheidemann, Noske, Kautsky, Haase, etc. She exposes the hypocrisy of the latter with burning words:

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. What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescencies in the politics of the Bolsheviks.3Rosa Luxemburg, On the Russian Revolution

Luxemburg had the same understanding as Lenin and Trotsky: the socialist revolution could only be victorious on the international stage. That is why she placed responsibility for the deficiencies of the Russian Revolution at the feet of the German Social Democrats, who were holding back the revolution in Germany with all their might. Germany, with its advanced industrial development, provided infinitely better conditions for building socialism than backwards Russia. This is what she expressed in a letter to her longtime friend Luise Kautsky (she had broken with Kautsky’s husband Karl years earlier):

Are you glad about the Russians? Of course, they won’t be able to maintain themselves in this witches’ Sabbath — not because statistics show that their economic development is too backward, as your clever husband has worked out, but because Social Democracy in the highly developed West consists of a pack of piteous cowards who are prepared to look on quietly and let the Russians bleed to death. But such an end is better than “living on for the father-land”; it is an act of world-historical significance whose traces will not be extinguished for eons.4Rosa Luxemburg, Letter to Luise Kautsky, November 24, 1918, quoted in: Frölich.

They Have Dared!

Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian Revolution concludes by placing her critique in the context of the entire history of the proletariat’s struggle for liberation. Not  “this or that detail” is decisive, but the revolution itself — for which Luxemburg fought with all her extraordinary energy: 

In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!”5Rosa Luxemburg, On the Russian Revolution

How sad that the thinking of such a great revolutionary is reduced to a single sentence — making her almost seem like an opponent of the first proletarian revolution. Luxemburg’s comrade-in-arms V.I. Lenin had warned of this danger at the time:

During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.6V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution.

We shouldn’t allow Luxemburg to be converted into a harmless icon. Her legacy is a call to struggle for socialist revolution. 

This article was first published in German on January 9, 2016, on Klasse Gegen Klasse. Translation by the author.


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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.


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