Arsenal of Marxism

Lenin and Luxemburg
Through Each Other’s Eyes

By Paul Le Blanc

Presented at International Conference on “Lenin’s Thought in the Twenty-First Century: Interpretation and Its Value,” Wuhan University, October 20-22, 2012, Luojia Hill, China

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg first met in 1901 but actually got to know each other amid the revolutionary workers’ insurgencies sweeping through Russia and Eastern Europe in 1905-1906. As Luxemburg biographer, J. P. Nettl, tells us: “A personal sympathy between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg—based, like all Lenin’s friendships, on mutual respect—was born at this time [in 1906] and was to survive for six years until party differences drowned it once more in the froth of polemics. Even then a spark of personal sympathy always survived the renewed hostilities . . .”1

Political theorist Hannah Arendt, drawing from Nettl’s study, concludes that “there were few people she respected [as intellectual equals], and [Leo] Jogiches [Luxemburg’s close comrade in the Polish movement] headed a list on which only the names of Lenin and [Marxs’s outstanding biographer] Franz Mehring could be inscribed with certainty.” In 1911, she wrote: “Yesterday Lenin came, and up to today he has been here four times already. I enjoy talking with him, he’s clever and well educated, and has such an ugly mug, the kind I like to look at.” She commented that her cat Mimi “impressed Lenin tremendously, he said that only in Siberia had he seen such a magnificent creature, that she was . . . a majestic cat. She also flirted with him, rolled on her back and behaved enticingly toward him, but when he tried to approach her she whacked him with a paw and snarled like a tiger.”2 This symbolizes the political differences that flared up between them, on which we will focus here.

Complex historical developments give some credence to Luxemburg’s warnings about the divisive, diversionary and destructive impact that nationalism can have for the working class. Lenin, on the other hand, is attentive to differences between the nationalism of oppressor nations (involving imperialism and racism, which must be opposed) and the nationalism of the oppressed (involving struggles against imperialism and racism, which should be supported).3 It could be argued that there is truth in each of these divergent perspectives.

In both Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital and Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism the capitalist system is portrayed as inherently imperialistic and violent. Yet Luxemburg, in contrast to Lenin, does not see imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, or as something that arose in the late nineteenth century due to the consolidation of multi-national corporations under the influence of finance capital. For her it has existed as an integral part of capitalism from its very beginning. Lenin largely popularizes the work of others—J. A. Hobson, Rudolf Hilferding, and Nikolai Bukharin. Luxemburg offers an original and controversial analysis, which is critical of what has been called the “realization theory” (having to do with how exchange-values are transformed into actual prices) in the second volume of Marx’s Capital. While Lenin tends to see multi-faceted dimensions, fluidity, and flexibility in capitalist expansion, Luxemburg believes that there are limits—a necessity for capitalism to expand into non-capitalist territories, which will eventually be used up, leading to crisis and collapse.4

“She has got into a shocking muddle,” Lenin complained. “She has distorted Marx.” Yet even economists inclined to agree with Lenin have insisted that Luxemburg was raising important questions, and some economists have insisted that some of the answers she provided are well worth considering. One of her severest critics, the Russian Marxist Nikolai Bukharin, hailed Luxemburg’s analysis as “a daring theoretical attempt” and “the deed of a brilliant theoretical intellect.” Ernest Mandel, agreeing with other critics on what he considers secondary issues, nonetheless argues that “the final balance-sheet on Luxemburg’s critique . . . must be a nuanced one. We cannot say baldly that she is right or that she is wrong.”5

Another major aspect of Luxemburg’s masterwork involved a set of chapters in which she examines, with anthropological sensitivity, the devastating impact of capitalist expansion on the rich variety of the world’s peoples and cultures. For Lenin, this vivid contribution was yet another negative feature. In his marginal notes in her book, he wrote: “The description of the torture of negroes in South America is noisy, colorful and meaningless. Above all it is ‘non-Marxist.’” Almost half-a-century later, noting the “criticism,” Hannah Arendt commented aptly, “but who would deny today that it belonged in a book on imperialism?”6

Luxemburg’s biographer, J. P. Nettl, observes, however, that Lenin “read The Accumulation of Capital in 1913, at a time when his political relations with Rosa Luxemburg were at their worst; his critical notes in the margin of the manuscript indicate that he was out to fault her wherever possible; they abound with exclamations like ‘nonsense’ and ‘funny’.” The underlying point of contention between the two revolutionaries at this time was a new flare-up of disagreements on “the organization question.”7

There were, over the years, significant fluctuations in Luxemburg’s assessment of Lenin’s organizational orientation. In 1904, she wrote a savage critique of One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin’s explanation of the Bolshevik/Menshevik split in the RSDLP [Russian Social Democratic Labor Partry], accusing Lenin of an ultra-centralist and authoritarian orientation that—seeking to ensure “revolutionary purity”—would result in the creation of an irrelevant sect. In 1905-1906, based on a changed situation (including closer contact with Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in a period of revolutionary upsurge), Luxemburg shifted to a pro-Bolshevik position. By 1907, she was defending Lenin from the same kinds of criticisms (this times advanced by Menshevik luminary George Plekhanov) that she herself had made three years before. By 1911 she more or less agreed with Lenin’s overwhelmingly negative assessment of all other elements in the RSDLP.

However, when the Bolsheviks, for all practical purposes, carried out what Luxemburg viewed as a definitive and destructive split in the RSDLP—setting up what was essentially a separate Bolshevik party—Luxemburg (throughout 1912 and 1913) denounced the move and persistently agitated for RSDLP unity, much to Lenin’s chagrin.8

The eruption of World War I, and the triumph of the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution (three years later, in 1917, which she passionately supported) opened an entirely new phase in Luxemburg’s thinking. This included her helping to found the German Communist Party at the start of 1919, but immediately after it was cut short with her murder by a right-wing death squad.

While it has been demonstrated that in 1904 Luxemburg distorted Lenin’s actual views in her old anti-Bolshevik polemic, even here we can find rich insights for revolutionary activists. She wrote:

“On the one hand, we have the mass; on the other, its historic goal, located outside of existing society. On one hand, we have the day-to-day struggle, on the other, the social revolution. Such are the terms of the dialectical contradiction through which the socialist movement makes its way. It follows that this movement can best advance by tacking betwixt and between the two dangers by which it is constantly being threatened. One is the loss of its mass character; the other, the abandonment of its goal. One is the danger of sinking back to the condition of a sect; the other, the danger of becoming a movement of bourgeois social reform.”9

While Lenin was dismissive of Luxemburg’s approach—tagging it “the whole notorious organization-as-process theory”—an examination of his own account of the evolution of Bolshevism in 1907 and again in 1920 show his own keen awareness, after some years of experience, that the development of a revolutionary party is indeed a process.10 More than this—although many commentators have counterpoised a so-called “spontaneist” idolization of mass action by Luxemburg to a centralist idolization of a “vanguard party” by Lenin—a serious examination of their writings reveals that both revolutionaries theorized a dynamic interplay of mass action and organization, often with strikingly similar formulations. In The Mass Strike, the Trade Union, and the Political Party, Luxemburg wrote:

“[t]he social democrats are the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat. They cannot and dare not wait, in a fatalist fashion, with folded arms for the advent of the “revolutionary situation,” to wait for that which, in every spontaneous peoples’ movement falls from the clouds. On the contrary, they must now, as always, hasten the development of things and endeavor to accelerate events.”11

In What Is To Be Done? Lenin wrote:

“The spontaneity of the masses demands a high degree of consciousness from us Social-Democrats. The greater the spontaneous upsurge of the masses and the more widespread the movement, the more rapid, incomparably so, the demand for greater consciousness in the theoretical, political and organizational work of Social-Democracy.”12

The relationship of democracy to the struggle for socialism was another contested question between Lenin and Luxemburg, but here also the realities were far more complex and more interesting than is often assumed. We have noted that Luxemburg was not inclined to support the nationalism of the oppressed, particularly their right to national self-determination, in part because this was not a working-class demand but instead was merely a bourgeois-democratic demand, one which threatened to divide the workers and which would become irrelevant if a working-class revolution was successful. By 1915, however, Lenin had become insistent on the necessity of fighting for all democratic demands as inseparable from the workers’ struggle for socialism. It is worth considering his position at length:

“The proletariat cannot be victorious except through democracy, i.e., by giving full effect to democracy and by linking with each step of its struggle democratic demands formulated in the most resolute terms. . . . We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc. While capitalism exists, these demands—all of them—can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms.”13

A terrible irony of the Russian Revolution, however, is that the revolutionary-democratic triumph of 1917 was overwhelmed by horrific catastrophes—including a brutalizing civil war and foreign assaults—that caused Lenin and his comrades to establish a one-party dictatorship. This was sometimes projected as a pathway to socialism, with democracy to be reestablished eventually.

“Socialist 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,” Luxemburg argued. Genuine socialism was inseparable from freedom, and “freedom must always be freedom for those who think differently.” She warned: “Without general elections, without unrestricted 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 . . . at bottom, then, a clique affair—a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians . . .”14

On the other hand, Luxemburg also argued that the Russian Revolution would be unable to move forward on the path she was calling for until its desperate isolation was ended—above all by the triumph of socialist workers’ revolutions in advanced industrial countries that could come to its assistance, particularly Germany. She added that “whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and all the other comrades have given in good measure.” She added that “there is no doubt either . . . that Lenin and Trotsky on their thorny path beset by traps of all kinds, have taken many a decisive step only with the greatest inner hesitation and with the most violent inner opposition.”15

Luxemburg and a number of her revolutionary comrades in Germany were murdered before they could lead the revolution that she was calling for. Afterward, and after the 1921 publication of her unfinished critique of the Russian Revolution, Lenin offered a glowing evaluation of his contentious comrade, insisting that “not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works . . . will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world.”16

Neither Lenin nor Luxemburg was invariably correct (or incorrect) on all points in their various disputes. Each was able to identify important aspects of reality. August Thalheimer, a revolutionary who knew and worked with both of them, insisted on the formulation “not Luxemburg or Lenin—but Luxemburg and Lenin,” explaining that “each of them gave . . . what the other did not, and could not, give.”17 I think this makes sense.

1 J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 357.

2 Hannah Arendt, “Rosa Luxemburg, 1870-1919,” in Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), 41, 43, 44, 45, 54; Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, Annelies Laschitza, eds., The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (London: Verso, 2011), 298.

3 See Michael Löwy, Fatherland or Mother Earth?: Essays on the National Question (London: Pluto Press, 1998), and Omar Dahbour and Michelene R. Ishay, eds., The Nationalism Reader (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1995), especially 198-214.

4 Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (London: Routledge, 2003); V. I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism—A Popular Outline (New York: International Publishers, 1974).

5 V. I. Lenin, Letter to L. B. Kamenev (March 1913), Collected Works, Vol. 35 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 94. See discussion by Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 150-163, and in Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. II, 828-841.

6 Nikolai Bukharin, Imperialism and the Accumulation of Capital, in Kenneth J. Tarbuck, ed., The Accumulation of Capital—An Anti-Critique by Rosa Luxemburg and Imperialism and the Accumulation of Capital by Nikolai Bukharin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), 268; Roman Rosdolsky, The Making of Marx’s “Capital,” 2 vols. (London: Pluto Press, 1989), 72; Ernest Mandel, “Introduction,” in Marx, Capital, Volume Two, 68. For two lucid and succinct efforts to draw together the various components of Marx’s three-volume work, seeking to demonstrate (in contrast to Luxemburg) that they form a coherent and satisfactory whole, see Ben Fine and Alredo Saad-Filho, Marx’s Capital, Fifth Edition (London: Pluto Press, 2010) and Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012). Lenin’s marginal notes to The Accumulation of Capital are quoted in Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. II, 533; Arendt, 40.

7 Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. II, 532.

8 On the Bolshevik split, see Paul Le Blanc, “The Birth of the Bolshevik Party in 1912,” Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal, April 17, 2012, On Luxemburg’s critical reaction, see Rosa Luxemburg, “Credo: On the State of Russian Social Democracy,” in Peter Hudis and Kevin Anderson, eds., The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 266-280.

9 Rosa Luxemburg, “Organizational Question of Social Democracy,” in Mary-Alice Waters, ed., Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 128-129. An 1987 essay documenting the flaws in Luxemburg’s analysis (and the considerable common ground actually existing between her approach and Lenin’s), see Paul Le Blanc, “Luxemburg and Lenin on Organization,” in Paul Le Blanc, ed., Rosa Luxemburg, Reflections and Writings (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999), 81-102, and Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1993), 79-87.

10 The criticism of Luxemburg can be found in V. I. Lenin, “Fine Words Butter No Parsnips,” Collected Works, Vol. 8 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1962), 61. Lenin’s own discussion of “organization-as-process” can be found in “Preface to the Collection Twelve Years” (1908) in Collected Works, Vol. 13 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 94-113, and Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder (1920), in V. I. Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, Selected Writings, edited by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 305-312.

11 Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, 161.

12 V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, in Revolution, Democracy, Socialism,138.

13 V. I. Lenin, “The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” in Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, 233-234.

14 Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, 389, 391, 394.

15 Ibid. 369, 375.

16 V. I. Lenin, “Notes of a Publicist,” Collected Works, Vol. 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 210. It is worth noting that Lenin was of the opinion that the platform of the Communist International should be based on the program of the Russian Communist Party and also on the program written for the Spartacus League by Rosa Luxemburg—see Gerda and Hermann Weber, Lenin: Life and Works (London: Macmillan Press, 1980), 154.

17 August Thalheimer, “Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin” (1930), Marxist Internet Archive, Also see Helen C. Scott and Paul Le Blanc, “Introduction to Rosa Luxemburg,” in Socialism or Barbarism: The Selected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. by Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott (London: Pluto Press, 2010), 3-35.