The IS Tradition and Rosa Luxemburg
The IS Tradition
John Rudge Issued Version 24th December 2018
As ever I am most grateful to my friend John Rudge for finding and making available this hitherto unknown material.
On 15th January 1919 – exactly one hundred years ago – Rosa Luxemburg was murdered by the forces of reaction during the German Revolution. A giant of the movement alongside the figures of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, her work is as important to us today as it ever was. On the centenary of her death I am pleased to make public three lesser-known episodes relating to Rosa Luxemburg and the IS tradition.
Episode 1: Socialism and the Churches – 1951
There has been a long affinity between the politics of the IS tradition and the politics of Rosa Luxemburg. Most people will date this relationship back to Tony Cliff’s classic 1959 publication Rosa Luxemburg: A Study but, in fact, it goes back further – indeed, right back to the formation of the Socialist Review Group (SRG).
In April 1951 the fledgling SRG broke new ground on the British left by being the first to publish an English language edition of Rosa Luxemburg’s 1905 pamphlet Socialism and the Churches. It appeared as a Special Supplement to the SRG’s organ Socialist Review. It was edited, printed and published by SRG founder member and experienced Birmingham revolutionary stalwart Bill Ainsworth. Here is the “Editor’s Foreword”:
“In line with our policy of publishing Socialist material not generally available to British working-class readers, we reproduce here Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on religion. This work has never previously appeared in the English language. First issued by the Polish Social-Democratic Party in 1905; a Russian edition appeared in Moscow in 1920. The present translation, the work of Juan Punto, is from the French edition published by the French Socialist Party in 1937.
Readers should bear in mind, that, when this article was written, most of Poland was part of the Russian (Czarist) Empire. All Christian organisations outside the state-supported Russian Orthodox Church were persecuted. The Social-Democratic Parties referred to were, of course, revolutionary socialist organisations, (in theory, at least) with nothing in common except the name with the pro-imperialist, class-collaborationist tendencies masquerading under the title today.
Written originally in response to the needs of Polish socialists at that time, this work has a permanent value as a popular, yet profound, analysis of the social role of religion. In view of the “spiritual mobilisation” being carried out by the various religious organisations on behalf of both reactionary war camps in the world today, such an analysis is particularly relevant. Its publication in our columns will have been more than justified if it contributes towards the exposure of the real character of these modern “swords of the spirit”. We especially commend it to that eminent “Socialist” theoretician, Mr. “Wesley” Phillips!” (1)
As well as this Special Supplement containing the text of Luxemburg’s 1905 pamphlet it also contained an interesting extra – Rosa Luxemburg: A Biographical Outline. There is no author stated for this biographical piece but it is of value as it pre-dates the Biographical Sketch that forms the opening chapter of Cliff’s later work on Rosa Luxemburg by eight years. Here is the 1951 Biographical Outline in full:
“Rosa Luxemburg, born on March 5th., 1871, in Russian Poland, daughter of a cultured Jewish family, first came into touch with revolutionary ideas when a high school pupil in Warsaw. Not long after she left school, the police discovered the circle of young rebels against Czarist oppression within which she had already risen to leadership, and, in order to escape arrest, Rosa, only just eighteen, was compelled to flee to Switzerland.
As a student of economics and history at various Swiss universities she impressed her teachers as their most brilliant pupil. Determined to devote her life to the socialist movement, Rosa went to Germany to work as a propagandist and teacher. Developing great powers as orator, debater, and writer, she quickly won recognition in the German movement, much to the chagrin of those who were very busily “revising” Marxism, for these were the main target of her biting polemics.
Despite her vast labours for the socialist cause, Rosa, an excellent linguist, found time to be well-read in European literature, and to be alive to every kind of beauty: nature, music, painting, and poetry. She was a great friend to all the children she knew. Not good-looking, and something of a cripple, she was nevertheless capable of attracting men and of inspiring deep affection. Especially was this so in the case of her devoted collaborator, Leo Jogisches, himself a most scholarly man, and, like Rosa, an implacable revolutionist.
In 1905, Rosa returned to Poland, illegally, to take her place in the leadership of the revolution which was then rocking Russian absolutism. Arrested in March 1906, her extremely poor health helped to procure an early release, and within a few months she was able to return to Germany.
During the last years before World War 1, her close association with Karl Liebknecht began. Particularly active as an anti-militarist, she was persistently harried by the Prussian State. When the imperialist war finally broke out in 1914, most leading “socialists” of the Second International hastened to the support of “their” respective governments, treachery which greatly shocked Rosa. On August 14th she held a small meeting in her flat at which revolutionary opposition to the war was planned. Rosa, although forced to spend almost the whole of the war years behind prison bars, certainly carried out her share of this work, writing and organising from the very prison cell.
The revolutionary upsurge of the German masses on November 9th, 1918, returned Rosa to freedom. Although very sick, and prematurely aged by the weary years in prison, she immediately plunged deep into unsparing activity. She became editor of the new paper, Rote Fahne – Red Flag – of the Spartacus League, and helped to found the German Communist Party, making what was destined to be her last speech, at its inaugural congress.
During the first few days of 1919, street-fighting broke out in Berlin, whereupon the press campaign against the Spartacists reached a crescendo of incitement to murder, and a price of 100,000 marks was set on the heads of Karl and Rosa. They were arrested at about nine o’clock in the evening of January 15th., and taken to a Cavalry H.Q. Without even the pretence of a trial, the prisoners were barbarously beaten with rifle-butts, and then bleeding profusely and half-dead already, they were dragged into cars to be finished off in some dark corner. Rosa’s maltreated corpse was thrown into the Landwehr Canal.
Thus ended the life of the most remarkable woman that the international socialist movement has yet produced.”
“Whilst the weapons of morons and mercenaries can add to our dead, they are powerless to destroy the ideas for which we stand. With the help of these revolutionary ideas we will build a memorial to Rosa, to Karl, and to the countless other comrades, many of them unknown, who have sacrificed everything, even life itself, in humanity’s struggle for a life free from the evils of exploitative society. Our memorial to these martyrs of the class-war will be built with joyous laughter and the carefree happiness of the children of the future, the ones whose lives, unshadowed by the darkness of poverty and war, will be spent in the gay comradeship of the World Socialist Community.” (2)
Reading all of this, there can be no doubting the special place that Rosa Luxemburg held for those early members of the Socialist Review Group including, of course, Tony Cliff.
- Undoubtedly, a reference to Morgan Phillips, Secretary of the Labour Party at this time. He was famous for his remark that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than to Marxism.
- This SRG edition of Rosa’s pamphlet was used as the basis of some later editions (e.g. Lanka Sama Samaja Party, 1959; Young Socialists, Colombo, 1964; Merlin Press, 1972). These editions do not include either the Foreword or the Biographical Sketch that are transcribed here.
Episode 2: TheRussian Revolution Pamphlet – 1959
Sean Matgamna may not be doing it deliberately but he has, on a number of occasions, helped me to uncover obscure, but important, aspects of IS tradition history. The Introduction he has written to the latest book from the Workers’ Liberty stable, works of Max Shachtman with the title In Defence of Bolshevism, is another case in point.
Matgamna’s footnote 51 on page 59 of his Introduction says:
“There is a peculiar problem in establishing the political history of the SWP. The documentary evidence, and the gaps in it, can seriously mislead.
In 1958-9 the Socialist Review group, as it then was, republished as a duplicated pamphlet Rosa Luxemburg’s 1918 criticism of the Bolsheviks. It took the text and the footnotes from the version put out by the Lovestone organisation in the USA in 1940, which would later also be republished by the University of Michigan Press, in 1961. The Lovestoneite pamphlet had registered the disbandment of what had been in the 1930s an important political element in the US labour movement, which had had important international links. Tony Cliff in Palestine had been a member of the equivalent group before becoming a Trotskyist. Socialist Review republished the pamphlet complete with Bertram D Wolfe’s footnotes and with a short introduction by Cliff. That pamphlet, more than Cliff’s later booklet on Rosa Luxemburg, was central to the group’s self-transformation into “Luxemburgists”, as distinct (so they saw it) from “Bolsheviks”. As far as I can find, the pamphlet received no mention at all in their press, nor, as was customary then, did they advertise it in the Labour left weekly, Tribune.
There is a copy in the British Library, but the only record of it from the time is a review by Walter Kendall in the Independent Labour Party the Socialist Leader: the ILP had been the “Luxemburgists” up to that point .”
Whilst Matgamna does not mention it by name he is referring to Rosa Luxemburg’s 1918 pamphlet The Russian Revolution. In particular, he is citing the edition of the pamphlet that was published in New York in 1940 by Workers’ Age Publishers, the publisher for Jay Lovestone’s Independent Labor League of America. The review by Walter Kendall is in the issue of Socialist Leader dated 26th September 1959.
I hold my hand up and admit that I was not aware that the SRG had issued this pamphlet (and it is not in Ian Birchall’s extensive Tony Cliff bibliography), so I am indebted to Sean Matgamna for the information. I was, however, aware from some minutes of Socialist Review Group Executive Committee meetings that I hold from 1959 that the organisation ordered 50 copies of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Russian Revolution pamphlet from Australia.
Why some were produced here, some received from Australia, but none were seemingly advertised must remain a mystery. Stan Newens was the key interface with the printing company in Harlow responsible for Cliff’s book, but even he cannot remember the pamphlet.
It is possible that this Luxemburg pamphlet served as a “stop-gap” during 1959. The publication of Cliff’s 1959 Rosa Luxemburg book (as Numbers 2 and 3 of International Socialism), was spectacularly delayed. There is a substantial advertisement covering one third of a page in the January 1960 issue of Socialist Review that announced:
- 41 years after her murder
- 1 year behind schedule
- 11½ months after the original announcement
- 4 months after reviewing it
- We are happy to announce Rosa Luxemburg. A Critical Study by Tony Cliff
- Nos. 2 and 3 of International Socialism
Interestingly, Cliff’s Rosa Luxemburg book itself seems to have been a departure from an earlier plan. On the last page of the first issue of International Socialism dated Summer 1958 it states what the next issue will include. One of the 3 items listed is Lenin and Luxemburg on the revolutionary party by L. Turov (L. Turov was one of Cliff’s pseudonyms). Clearly, that article never appeared, and we got Cliff’s Rosa Luxemburg book and Luxemburg’s The Russian Revolution pamphlet instead.
Whatever the reason for The Russian Revolution pamphlet, far from being something that was more central to SRG political history than Cliff’s Rosa Luxemburg book, or a gap aiming to seriously mislead, as Matgamna suggests, the explanation for this pamphlet is likely to be somewhat more prosaic.
A copy of the pamphlet is held in the British Library. Here is the text of Cliff’s Preface to the pamphlet:
“During September and October 1918, while in Breslau prison, Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet on the Russian revolution. As a basis, she used not only the German but also the Russian press of the time that was smuggled by her friends into her prison cell. She never finished or polished the work, for the beginning of the German revolution opened the door of her prison.
The first edition of this pamphlet was published in 1922, after Rosa Luxemburg’s death, by her comrade-in-arms, Paul Levi. This edition, however, was not complete, and in 1928 a new edition was published on the basis of a newly found manuscript. In 1940 an English translation of this edition by B.D. Wolfe was published in the United States. The present edition is a copy of this. The chapter headings are also the work of B.D. Wolfe.
Rosa Luxemburg was a most enthusiastic supporter of the October Revolution and of the Bolshevik Party, and she made this clear in her pamphlet, writing: “Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honour and capacity which western Social-Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honour of international socialism.”
Although praising the October revolution in the highest terms, Rosa believed that an uncritical acceptance of everything the Bolsheviks did would not be of service to the Labour movement. Using the Marxist method of analysis, she could not accept anything without submitting it to revolutionary criticism.
It was clear to her that the conditions of isolation of the Russian revolution caused by the betrayal of Western Social Democracy, must lead to distortions in its development. Without international revolutionary support, “even the greatest energy and the greatest sacrifices of the proletariat in a single country must inevitably become entangled in a maze of contradictions and blunders.”
After pointing out some of these contradictions and blunders, Rosa clearly uncovers their roots, saying: “Everything that happens in Russia is comprehensible and represents an inevitable chain of causes and effects, the starting point and end term of which are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism. It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions.”
While objective factors mat lead revolutions to blunder, subjective factors in the leaders may make these blunders dangerous. “The danger begins only when they 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.”
But it was precisely this dangerous idea that was swallowed lock, stock and barrel by the Stalinist parties (and, alas, also by some who call themselves anti-Stalinists). The heart of Rosa’s pamphlet on the Russian revolution, as of all she wrote and said, was a belief in the workers, the conviction that they, and they alone, are capable of overcoming the crisis facing humanity. She fervently believed that workers’ democracy is inseparable from proletarian revolution and socialism.
Although she unhesitatingly supported the proletarian dictatorship directed against the enemies of socialism, she argued that only complete and consistent democracy could ensure the rule of the working class and give scope for its tremendous potentialities. Rosa says that the Bolsheviks deviated from this conception: “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. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which only have to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that. Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party program or textbook. That is not a shortcoming but rather the very thing that makes scientific socialism superior to the utopian varieties. The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, an historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realization, as a result of the developments of living history, which – just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part – has the fine habit of always producing along with any real social need the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution. However, if such is the case, then it is clear that socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced by ukase.”
And Rosa predicted that the collective of the Russian workers would not take an active part in economic and social life: “….socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals.” “….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 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 an 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….”
As a scientist Rosa Luxemburg detested “infallible authorities”, and certainly would not have wished herself to turn into the head of a new church with its own dogmas. She would be the last to think her work perfect. Using her own method, a number of mistakes may be found in her pamphlet on the Russian revolution. Where Rosa went wrong, as later events showed, was where she herself departed from the principle of popular decision. For instance, she criticized the Bolsheviks’ acceding to the desire of the peasants to distribute the land, and also their acceptance of the right of the formerly suppressed nations of the Russian empire to self-determination.
Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the Russian revolution, as all her writing, can give no solace to dogmatic Stalinists or any other dogmatists, nor to the reformist critics of revolutionary socialism, but can serve as an aid to those who desire to keep the science of working class action living and untrammeled. Her criticism of the Bolshevik party is in the best traditions of Bolshevism.”
If the explanation for the pamphlet is likely to be straightforward there is still no doubting that Cliff’s Preface is interesting. Some is drawn from the chapter Rosa Luxemburg’s Criticism of the Bolsheviks in Power in his 1959 book, some from Bertram D. Wolfe’s 1940 introduction and some is original Cliff. It should be seen as a companion piece to the book.
It is quite clear that Tony Cliff was extremely impressed and influenced by Luxemburg. He was not alone in SRG circles. As the Socialist Review advertisement mentioned above tells us, Cliff’s book was reviewed months before its publication. The reviewer was Mike Kidron and it was published in the September 1959 issue of Socialist Review. The opening of his review makes it crystal clear just how important Kidron also saw Rosa Luxemburg for the future of the movement:
“The fate suffered by Rosa Luxemburg’s memory in the forty years since her murder is an accurate reflection of the fate of the international socialist movement. This mighty revolutionary, probably the greatest tribune the western proletariat has produced since Marx and Engels, has laid almost undisturbed in the byways of socialist research, dimly remembered, grossly misrepresented, incapable of being accommodated within the turgid streams of social democracy and Stalinism. Even the miniscule groups of misnamed Trotskyists have found her too turbulent a spirit to commit to their gallery of deities.
The movement has yet to discover the significance of Rosa Luxemburg. When it does, it will be infinitely richer, until it does, it will be underlining its failure to measure up to its historic tasks.”
In 1959, Mike Kidron put Rosa Luxemburg ahead of both Lenin and Trotsky as a “tribune” for socialists in the developed countries. I have no reason to believe that he changed his stance in later years – even if Tony Cliff may have done.
My thanks to Barry Buitekant, Scott Reeve, Rob Marsden and Stan Newens for their assistance in bringing this episode to light.
Episode 3: Tony Cliff at Marxism – 1980
Unbeknownst to us all Tony Cliff’s talk on Rosa Luxemburg at the 1980 Marxism event in London seems to have been recorded, transcribed, edited and then published in Australia. It is rewarding that it has now been found – even if I am almost forty years late!
Cliff’s talk was published in Hecate(A Women’s Interdisciplinary Journal) Volume 6 Number 2 (1980) with the title The Revolutionary Politics of Rosa Luxemburg. The editor of Hecate from its inception in 1975 right through to today is Carole Ferrier (Professor Emeritus, School of Communication and Arts, The University of Queensland).
Carole is from the IS tradition having been instrumental in starting the IS branch in Brisbane around 1974. She well recalls visits from Alex Callincos (from the Pomintern!), to attempt to resolve factional disputes in the organisation. Ian Birchall’s bibliography of Cliff’s works tells us that he spoke on the subject of Rosa Luxemburg at Marxism in both 1979 and 1980 (Birchall, 2011 p. 599). As Carole was in London in 1980 we can be pretty sure this is the talk we have here.
The opportunity to get a feel for Cliff’s views on Luxemburg in 1980 is particularly useful. 1980 was the year that his 1959 book on Rosa was republished for the first time since 1968 and 1969. It was also in the period between the completion of his four-volume work Lenin and his first and only serious work on women’s issues Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation: 1640 to the Present Day. In addition, at this time, the SWP was doing organised women’s work through the medium of Women’s Voice magazine and Women’s Voice groups.
It is by now a famous, perhaps infamous, story how Cliff altered two small sections of his 1959 Rosa Luxemburg text for the late 1960s editions without telling anybody. The alterations reflected the change in his views on Lenin and Luxemburg in the light of the 1968 May events in France and his ensuing successful push at the 1968 IS Conferences to turn IS into a democratic centralist type organisation. Is any of this reflected in his 1980 talk? Had, as is often alleged, Cliff switched from Luxemburgism to Leninism in 1968?
Ian Birchall has previously tackled this question and says:
“This is a misleading oversimplification. There is no such precisely defined doctrine as “Luxemburgism”. While Rosa Luxemburg did indeed give great importance to spontaneity, she spent most of her life in an organisation which claimed to be a revolutionary party. “Leninism” is also a rather slippery concept, and Cliff’s own interpretation of Lenin, to be developed in his four-volume biography, was far from a conventional one.” (Birchall, 2011).
What Ian says is certainly fair comment. There is nothing as slippery as an “ism”. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that Cliff had not made such a blatant switch. He had, however, laid the groundwork for a turn in the organisation and workings of the IS/SWP from the better aspects of Luxemburg towards some of the least-good of Lenin. The turn would take place over a number of years. Some involved in the 1968 IS Conference debates, most notably Mike Kidron, saw this possibility. It is why he wrote a document for the November 1968 recalled IS Conference in the name of Hull IS titled Neither Lenin nor Luxemburg, but in reference to the environment in which we work. In the document he starts by reminding Cliff of a quote from his 1959 Rosa book:
“It is only by juxtaposing Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s conceptions [of organisation] that one can attempt to assess the historical limitations of each which were, inevitably, fashioned by the special environment in which each worked.”
And then he continues:
“If Lenin stressed party organization in the early years of the century it was to compensate for the absence of independent working-class organizations and for the weakness of a Russian socialist tradition. If Luxemburg stressed spontaneity ten or so years later it was to compensate for the fossilized, centralized bureaucratic tradition of German social-democracy. We don’t have their reasons to overcompensate in either direction; there are independent working-class formations in the country and vestiges of a socialist tradition which we want to influence; at the same time there is no single institution spanning the entire labour movement, so we have to provide the organizational apparatus ourselves.” (Kidron, 1968 quoted in Rudge, 2018).
Cliff’s 1980 talk remains largely positive regarding the contributions of Rosa Luxemburg and indeed Cliff is still content to point out the areas where she proved superior to Lenin. He is even happy to concede that Rosa had a role in the gestation of the key IS theory of the permanent arms economy (something, to be fair, many others have pointed out).
Personally, I took a lot of good things from Cliff’s contribution. With one big issue – Cliff concludes by returning to the party-building issue and thereby castigates Rosa Luxemburg as a failure. If one was being unkind one might say that Tony Cliff’s life was, on a like for like basis, also a failure. I don’t believe if for Rosa Luxemburg and I don’t believe it for Tony Cliff.
The text of Cliff’s talk as it appears in Hecate follows. I am extremely grateful to Carole Ferrier and Julian Vaughan for their help.
The Revolutionary Politics of Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg has a unique place in working class history. In the history of struggle women have, of course, played a very central role – from the French Revolution to the General Strike in Petrograd, when eighty thousand textile workers struck in February 1917, and brought down the Czar. Among the rank and file members of the party, you find that women played a very important role, but the higher you go in the leadership of the party the smaller the number of women becomes. For example, when you look at the delegates to the Soviet of Petrograd, you find that out of three thousand delegates there were only forty women – when women were a third, more than a third, of the working class of Petrograd.
When you look at the party members in terms of cadres, you find a number of women: Krupskaya, secretary of the Bolsheviks from 1903-17; Inessa Armand, one of the key organisers of the party for a period of twenty years; Kollontai, on the Bolshevik Central Committee; but when you come to the theoreticians of the revolutionary movement, you will find that Rosa Luxemburg stands on her own. I believe that what Mehring said about her is right. Mehring was the biographer of Marx; he knew Marx and Marxism very well and was the author of a history of the Social Democratic movement in Germany. He was also a cantankerous old man. Mehring used to quarrel with Luxemburg, and break personal relations with her from time to time, once for more than a year. But Mehring also said: “there is no doubt that the finest brain amongst the scientific successors of Marx and Engels was Rosa Luxemburg.”
One unique thing about Rosa Luxemburg is her youth when she appeared as a leader. Take Lenin: when did Lenin become Lenin? At the age of thirty, when you find him using the name Lenin for the first time, and you find him accepted as one of the leaders, not the leader of the Russian socialist movement. The father of Russian Marxism was Plekhanov. At the age of sixteen, Luxemburg was accepted, recognised as the leader and theoretician of the movement. The Polish movement was not a backward movement. It was far more advanced than the Russian movement. Poland, for example, had a party called Proletariat, in 1882. That was the party that Luxemburg joined a few years later at the age of sixteen. This party of the proletariat led mass strikes in the early 1880’s. At this time, you could count the Russian Marxists on the fingers of two hands – of one hand. Not only this, their numbers were so minimal that they had to leave Russia and spend their time abroad, in Switzerland or in Germany. The Poles were much more advanced; they not only led mass strikes, but also factory occupations. Some of us think that the factory occupation was invented by British workers in July 1971. Some of us with slightly longer memories think it was an American invention with the steel strikes and so on in the 1930’s. Some of us with longer memories think of the occupations in Northern Italy in 1920. But the word for factory occupation is, in fact, the Polish word for strike. It was the Poles who did it first; and Rosa Luxemburg, at the age of sixteen, joins a party that has this tradition, that has roots, that has mass influence, that has hundreds and hundreds of members leading mass strikes. At the age of eighteen she is accepted as the leader of the party. Not one of the leaders of the party; she is the leader and theoretician of the party.
She is also unique in another way. When you look at Lenin, Lenin was a Russian leader, from the time he became a revolutionary until the revolution; he wrote for Russian workers, led Russian workers, he was a Russian leader. Not that he was not an internationalist, but his base was really in Russia. If you take Marx, he had no base at all. Marx was, for one year, a leader of the German Communist League, in 1847-8, but then for a long time afterwards he was without a party, without a base; Rosa Luxemburg was all her life a leader of two parties. She led the Polish party and the German party. She wrote for both the Polish press and the German press and she was accepted as a leader of both parties. Sometimes she represents the Polish party and sometimes the German party, and was accepted all her life in this unique position.
What is also unique about Rosa is a fascinating, astonishing intellectual courage. In 1893, when she was twenty-three, she went to the Congress of the Second International. At the Congress were all the old-timers, Karl Kautsky, called “the Pope of Marxism”, Lippner, who grew up at the knees of Marx and Engels, August Bebel – and Frederick Engels was still alive. One of the chief things in both Marx’s and Engels’ position was the central role of the national movement in Poland, the move for national independence against Tsarism. It was taken as an act of faith as elementary as ABC, that every revolutionary must uphold the independence of Poland against the Tsarist regime. You find Rosa Luxemburg on the platform of the Congress saying: “This is a load of rubbish! It is not true that the Czar is the gendarme of reaction in Europe. It is not true that the Czar is the mighty force of 1848 that sent his troops to smash the Hungarian revolution, that smashed all the revolutions in Central Europe. The Czar is the sick man of Europe. It is the pound and the franc and the mark that are keeping up the power of the Czar. Therefore, the slogan of the national independence of Poland is not correct at present.” That was in 1893. A year later, in 1894, Engels was still repeating, in an article, the slogan of the independence of Poland.
I am not discussing whether Luxemburg was right or wrong on the subject. But at the age of twenty-three to come up at the Congress and say this required a great deal of courage. Straight after she spoke, Lippner got up on the platform and said: “Do you want to see an agent of the Czarist secret police? Here she stands before you!” And he pointed at Rosa Luxemburg. Right up to her death, her murder, in 1919, rumours were spread about her relation to the Russian secret police. Of course something else made these stories stick a little – the way she got out of Poland. It is quite an amusing anecdote. In 1889 practically the whole leadership was arrested, some taken to prison, some to their deaths. The party members decided that she should run away from Poland. The only way she could think of was to go to the local priest in Zamosc and say: “You know I am Jewish. I want to marry a Christian. My family will not allow me to do it in Poland. Therefore I must go to Germany. Of course I have no papers because my family will not allow me them. So please, Father, help me get out of the country.” Of course, she had no intention of marrying anybody; though she afterwards married for reasons of convenience, in order to be allowed to stay in Germany.
So the main things about Rosa as a person was that she was unique in terms of her character, the fact that she was a woman, the fact that she was such an independent theoretician, and had astonishing courage. Now let us go on to ask what her main contribution was. When you look at Marx, he gave us the foundation of our scientific understanding of the world. His main contribution was in Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto. Lenin’s contribution was that he was a party person. Lenin built the instrument of revolution, the instrument of victory. Rosa, by comparison, never led a victorious revolution. And because of that they played very different roles – roles that depended on the circumstances. When Marx died, there were only two hundred people at his funeral. Marx also never led a victorious revolution. It is not the question of how “great” Marx was, but that he lived in a period of expanding capitalism, a period where capitalism was going ahead, and therefore the revolutionary movement looked like extremists on the sidelines, and played a very small role. Lenin had the luck to be born in a period of the actuality of the revolution. Rosa you have to judge in terms of the conditions of the time, and what she contributed.
The first thing to say about this is that, in terms of understanding reformism, Rosa is by far the best teacher of revolutionary versus reformist politics. For Lenin or Trotsky to oppose reformism was relatively easy, for there were some traditions that were extremely weak, such as the conservative tradition in Czarist Russia. You would be mad, for example, to speak about a trade union bureaucracy controlling the movement. There were only 50,000 members of the unions, in 1917, in Russia, out of a working class of 3 million factory workers. To speak about the parliamentary road to socialism would be completely mad. Even Menshevik MP’s, the leader of the Mensheviks, finished in hard labour in Siberia. There was no parliamentary road to socialism, only the parliamentary road to Siberia.
For Lenin and Trotsky, it was obvious that the reformists were wrong. Luxemburg faced a quite different movement in the German labour movement. From 1893 she lived in Germany, and faced for years and years a massive social democratic organisation, with ninety-two daily papers; its theoretical journal published every fortnight by Kautsky, everything fantastically well organised, everybody stepping in time. And she had to move out of this world of German social democracy into some sense of the revolution. She faced this massive organisation and she had a problem with how to smash reformism under such conditions. And the best piece of writing about reformism is the little pamphlet, Reform or Revolution, in which she asked a number of questions. Firstly, is the difference between reformists and revolutionaries a difference of methods? She says, no, it is a difference of aims. The reformists accept the assumptions of capitalism. She said of all trade union struggle, that it is “Sisyphus work”. The reformists used to shout at her every time she went to a conference: “Sisyphus! Sisyphus!”. What was her answer? A very simple one. Of course, Sisyphus didn’t change the world of his day. But he got good muscles from pushing the rock to the top of the mountain! The expression enraged the German trade union bureaucrats. They could not admit that the trade union struggle, however useful in protecting the workers from the imminent tendency of capitalism to depress their standards progressively, is no substitute for the liberation of the working class.
When workers go on strike under capitalism, they can go on strike from now to eternity and capitalism is still there. They can go on strike for higher wages and higher wages, and again higher wages, but as long as there are buyers of labour power and sellers of labour power, so long the capitalists control the work of the country, so long the workers are property-less. The workers can lead thousands of strikes and still be an oppressed class. Therefore, for Rosa Luxemburg, the struggle is not for what you get in the struggle. If you are a reformist, you judge a strike by how much you can get from the strike. If you got 15% you are alright. If you got 10%, it was no good. On the basis of this approach, the last three months of the steel strike in Britain were a waste of time. The workers lost a thousand pounds in wages, and they got back a wage rise of something like 15%, connected to productivity deals and so on. It would take them five years to recuperate what they lost. But the truth of the matter is this. Even if the workers got 20%, if they got 30%; what is important is the spiritual growth. And that is what Rosa Luxemburg argued in Reform or Revolution. What the reformists think, is that the reform is important in itself. To us, the struggle for the reform is important to the extent that the working class changes itself, so that it is able to change society. You mustn’t tell workers that the fight by itself is important, because it doesn’t change the society at all, it doesn’t liberate the workers. The workers can win the battle for wages, but then come sackings, then comes high taxation and they are still in the same place. What is important is the spiritual growth, the changes that occurred as a result of the struggle.
If the emphasis is on spiritual growth, to have steel workers not allowing scab lorries through the picket lines made the whole steel strike worthwhile. The thing that the workers change in the process of struggle, is that they change themselves. Luxemburg does not in her pamphlet say that a revolutionary is against reform. A revolutionary is pleased about reform, not because we can achieve many reforms but because we can achieve changes to the working-class consciousness. To put it in a nutshell: if a peasant has a torn coat, he or she will patch it, and if it tears again, put on another patch. You cannot say at first to the peasant “Go and attack the lord of the manor!” When they can put no more patches on they will go and attack the lord of the manor – and get a fur coat! You will not attack the lord of the manor unless you have tried to put on the patches. And therefore for Luxemburg, the struggle for reform is only as good as the struggle for revolution. All this she made very clear. She also said that socialists, this side of the socialist revolution are always the complete opposition. They stop being the opposition only on the ruin of capitalism. You don’t start this side of the revolution offering to go running the system, organising alternative production. You do not raise the problem of the alternative unless you are in power. Only when you are in power are you no longer in opposition. And you will only come to power on the ruins of capitalism. Therefore the pamphlet on reformism is very worth reading.
What else is important in Rosa’s work? For her the struggle against reformism is always related to the struggle on the shop floor. Some people think that ideas grow somewhere in the sky. For Rosa, the emphasis is that in the struggle workers change. I suggest that when you have read Reform or Revolution, you read another pamphlet called The Mass Strike. This is another of Rosa’s most important contributions to our concept of what workers’ revolution is all about. Its main assumption is that in the 1905 bourgeois revolution in Russia, the key to the revolution was the barricades. Why? Because the bourgeois revolution is by definition about how to mobilise the unconscious majority in the interests of the propertied minority. When we speak about the French revolution being a bourgeois revolution we don’t mean that the bourgeoisie made the revolution – the bourgeoisie never did anything in their lives, certainly not anything as stupid as to sacrifice themselves during a revolution. When you call it a bourgeois revolution you mean that the Sans-Culottes, the people without shoes, take the chestnuts out of the fire – but the capitalists get the fruits of victory. In the bourgeois revolution, of necessity, the street was the important place, because in the street workers don’t move as a collective, they move in thousands, in tens of thousands. Rosa said socialism is produced through “the conscious will and the conscious action of the majority of the proletariat.” The power of the proletariat is in the workplace. Therefore, the heart of the revolution is the general strike. The mass strike is not a strike about wages alone. The mass strike raises the question of power. Because when you strike on a small level you only face the individual employer. When you strike in two factories, you face two individual employers. But when you have a mass strike you face the power of the state. That is why it is not true that the steel strike was about wages only. The steel strike was formally about wages, but in reality it was much more on the question of jobs and the anti-Tory feeling.
For Rosa Luxemburg, the mass strike gives the workers first of all the feeling of collectivity and second, a sense of where the enemy is – the capitalist state, not the individual capitalist. Therefore the general strike, the mass strike, will always close on a much higher level than it started. It can start on the issue of wages and develop into the issue of revolution. And when you read the pamphlet, The Mass Strike, you understand what the struggle is all about. That it is not true that it is a struggle about wages; it is a struggle about a completely new shape for society. There is a story about a mass meeting in Petrograd in 1917. If you asked what it was likely to have been about, most people would think that it would be about wages. At this meeting, twenty thousand people were standing there to listen to Lunacharsky for four or five hours. What was his subject – in 1917, in the middle of the war, the middle of the famine, when people were dying. In the middle of all this, Lunacharsky speaks about Greek drama. Now let’s assume we have a meeting with Paul Foot speaking on Greek drama – no, on Shelley. You would be lucky if you got five hundred to come, and they would be Socialist Workers Party members who had come only because they were sorry for Paul Foot. Now, British workers are more comfortable than were the Russian workers in 1917. But what really happens when the struggle reaches the high dimensions of the mass struggle is that it raises questions that are much wider than the immediate things. People don’t just live by bread. They love flowers, they love poetry, they love music, and that is what mattered to those workers. When you read The Mass Strike you find that it is not about the mass strike but about the transformation of workers in the struggle when the horizon is unlimited. And therefore Rosa Luxemburg said: “Any human issue is not foreign to me.” Everything is relevant to us. On the eve of the mass strike, you care about anything that happens; each form of oppression, anything that happens, is relevant to us.
I want to deal with a few other aspects of Luxemburg’s contribution. Her main theoretical contribution is of course her book called The Accumulation of Capital, which deals with a problem in a chapter of Marx’s Capital. She came upon the problem partly by accident as she had to give a series of lectures on economics but when she came to this chapter started playing with the figures and found that the arithmetic does not work. I know most of us, if we were doing the same work and came upon this would say: Marx made an error in the addition; who cares? But Luxemburg went on, and came to a conclusion: that the structure of the analysis was wrong. She said that the whole of Marx’s Capital is based on a very high level of abstraction. Take the law of gravitation; that stone and paper fall at the same speed. Now, in the real world, everyone knows that stone and paper do not fall at the same speed: no one on a picket line would be stupid enough to use a piece of paper when they needed a stone! But this does not mean Newton was wrong. Newton was right on the level of abstraction. The abstraction in Marx is that there are only three classes in society, the capitalists, the workers and the landlords, no other classes. The economy they called completely capitalist internationally, and so on. Now of course, Marx knew that in reality, the economy is not like that. In reality, capitalism over a period of 200 years only managed to industrialise Western Europe, Central Europe, the United States, and Japan; the big majority of the world is still very backward. Rosa Luxemburg came to the conclusion that capital accumulation cannot take place, unless you have a non-capitalist section of society. Now I will not go into the question of whether she was right or wrong. But what is important about it is, that once you understand that the capitalist section of the economy relates closely to the non-capitalist section of the economy, then you understand first of all the stability of capitalism of the time, why the revolution didn’t break out in 1848, why capitalism continued to expand, why elements outside the capitalist world interfered – and that is the importance of this book.
Rosa asked: what are the forces outside the capitalists and workers that make for the stabilisation of the capitalist economy? We were not original when we developed the theory of the permanent arms economy. Anybody who had read The Accumulation of Capital would find all the basic elements of that theory there.
My last point is the question of Rosa on the party and the class. In a comparison between Rosa and Lenin, you have to look at the specific conditions under which Rosa worked and under which Lenin worked. In Czarist Russia, there was mass action, strikes, lots of action and activity. The reason was the organisation to give it a focus. When you read Lenin, he talks about the party, the organisation: we have the steam, we need the piston! When Lenin wrote in 1904-5, it was the period of the Russo-Japanese war, tens of thousands of Russians and Japanese were killed. A couple of chapters of the two volumes written at this period are on the war, and the rest is on the need to build a party. And unless you look at the Russian tradition, you don’t understand why he wrote like that. If Rosa said the same thing in Germany she would have had trouble, because in Germany between 1900 and 1907, there was no mass action. Therefore, Rosa put the emphasis on spontaneity. But let us be clear, Rosa in her immediate reaction was right. In the 1917 revolution started by the women textile workers, nobody decided the date. By contrast, the date of the October revolution was decided by the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party by nine votes to two. The 26th October was not accidental, it was completely planned. When you are in the situation of the revolutionary government of 1919 it is not clear who is the enemy and who is not; in such conditions, the problem of organisation is absolutely decisive. If you have hundreds of delegates in Petrograd meeting to discuss the situation, and one comrade says, “I represent such and such a factory, twenty thousand workers, and we are hesitant about the revolution.” And one after another, from the army and the navy, they go on. Suddenly someone jumps on the table and says: “Comrades, it is not up to us to discuss the insurrection. We are making the insurrection!” An insurrection that changes the face of the world for a generation, and you are becoming hesitant, becoming frightened. When you look at Luxemburg, her reaction was right in terms of the German events. But what happened in 1918-19? She was helpless. Of course the main thing is for workers to act; but when they do, what is the most important thing? The organisation, the leadership. One of the tragedies for Luxemburg was that because she had spent years reacting against German Social Democracy, against the leadership of the conservatives, all the time she put the emphasis on spontaneity rather than organisation: the result being that at the end of the day, after more than twenty years of being in the German SDP, she was simply the leader of a small propaganda group.
Luxemburg didn’t have a party in Germany – and that is one of the greatest tragedies, that in 1919 she didn’t have a party or the tradition of a party. Even her murder was a result of this. Lenin was going to be murdered, accused of being a German spy. What Lenin did was go into hiding because he said, quite simply, you had to preserve the party and the leadership. Rosa Luxemburg didn’t hide. She remained in Berlin, because she was not confident that party members would understand why she was going into hiding. When thousands of party members are killed, how can the leaders go into hiding? She remained in Berlin because the cadres were so weak, so new. On every issue in the revolution she lost, not in terms of the SDP, but inside the party. The party didn’t support her. On the question of participating in the unions (she was for revolutionaries to be in the unions), she lost. On the question of participating in elections for the constituent assembly, she was for participation, they were against. They were young, and the young revolutionary who does not start as ultra-left is absolutely dead at the age of thirty. But if you are going to lead a party to a revolution, ultra-leftism is a very bad guide because you think through your stomach, your guts, rather than through your brain. And you cannot lead a struggle through guts.
The tragedy was that because Luxemburg acted in terms of the immediate situation in Germany, she didn’t think about the final results, the need to build a revolutionary party, and therefore she failed. In Poland, she had a party. Her party in Poland was as hard as the Bolsheviks: Jogisches, who was leader of the party when she was in Germany, was harder and more intolerant than Lenin. The Polish party in 1919 was one of the three parties that were better than the Bolsheviks. But what I have been discussing is the situation of the German Rosa Luxemburg, who failed in the revolution of 1918-19 because she didn’t have a party.
Birchall, Ian. 2011. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. Bookmarks Publications, London, 664pp.
Rudge, J. 2018. The Turn to Democratic Centralism: Documents of the 1968 IS Conferences. Available online: http://grimanddim.org/tony-cliff-biography/1968-the-turn-to-democratic-centralism/