Vladimir Ilich Vs. Rosa Luxemburg -- A Study Based On Lenin’s Writings

(From Liberation, November 1988)

Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was an outstanding figure in the Polish and German working class movement. She was the leader of the left wing of the Second International. Rosa was one of the sponsors of the International Group in Germany, subsequently renamed the Spartacus Group and then the Spartacus League. She was one of the leaders of the revolutionary German workers during the November 1918 revolution and took part in the Inaugural Congress of the Communist Party of Germany. Rosa was arrested and murdered in January 1919.

Relations between Rosa and Lenin present a very complicated picture. They engaged in bitter polemics over the specific questions of the Russian revolution but shared the common platform of internationalist revolutionary social-democracy. Both waged a staunch struggle against the renegades of the Second International during the imperialist war. Lenin paid rich tributes to Rosa describing her as one of the finest representatives of the Third International.

Of late, there has been a good deal of revival of Rosa Luxemburg in Western Marxist circles. In our country too, representatives of various trends of thought are frequently making use of Rosa’s writings in support of their own concepts. Sharad Joshi, the leader of the farmers’ movement, refers to Rosa’s The Accumulation of Capital to prove his point that the realisation of surplus value produced in industrial sector is possible only through internal colonisation of the agricultural sector.

According to some socialist authors, the bureaucratic distortions in Soviet Russia, most glaringly revealed through Gorbachev’s reforms, owe their origin to the ‘undemocratic process’ of seizure of power by Bolsheviks in November 1917 and to the Leninist methodology of putting excessive emphasis on centralism, an apprehension expressed by Rosa in her manuscripts written in prison in 1918.

Then again Rosa is extolled for her opposition to Lenin’s ‘ultra-centrist’ approach to party building.

In short, behind this revival of Rosa Luxemburg, there appears to be a conscious attempt to pit Rosa against Lenin. We must, therefore, have a look at the multi-faceted relationship between Rosa and Lenin — their sharp differences as well as their internationalist proletarian unity — and see how it evolved in different phases of the international working class movement.

1. Rosa Luxemburg in her famous book Die Akkumulation Das Capitals, published in 1913, contradicted Marx and advanced the thesis that surplus value produced in the capitalist sector is realised in the pre-capitalist sector through the mechanism of colonisation of backward regions and countries.

Let us see how Marx visualised the realisation of surplus value. According to Marx, the total product of a capitalist country consists of the following three parts: (a) constant capital, (b) variable capital, and (c) surplus value. Furthermore, Marx distinguished between the two major departments of capitalist production, namely, Department I where the production of means of production takes place, and Department II where articles of consumption are produced.

Now, only a part of the surplus value is embodied in articles of consumption; the rest is contained in the means of production. The surplus value embodied in the means of production is ‘consumed’ by capitalists themselves, and takes the shape of constant capital for extended reproduction. This is the essence of the capitalist mode of production where at the end of every cycle constant capital increases and unlimited expansion of productive forces takes place. The home market, in capitalist society, grows not so much on account of articles of consumption as on account of means of production. This is what is called Marx’s theory of realisation.

Growth of foreign market is a product of historical conditions which appeared at a certain epoch of development of capitalism. Introducing the role of foreign trade means nothing more than considering a few capitalist countries together, instead of a single country. This does in no way effect the essential process of realisation.

As far as the peasantry creating a market for capitalism is concerned, it does so only to the extent that it is differentiated into classes of the capitalist society, namely the rural bourgeoisie and the rural proletariat. These classes are very much part of the same capitalist society. If the capitalist farming sector develops at a slower pace than the industrial sector, and if serious imbalances prevail in the prices of industrial and agricultural commodities, this is related to the theory of formation of capitalist society and has nothing to do with the theory of realisation in capitalist society.

Lenin, while referring to a review of Rosa’s book which appeared in Bremer-Burger Zeitung, wrote to the editor, "I am very pleased to see that on the main points you came to the same conclusion as I did in the polemic with Tugon-Bernovsky and Volkstumler 14 years ago, namely, that the realisation of surplus value is possible also in a "purely capitalist" society. I have not yet seen Rosa Luxemburg’s book but theoretically you are quite correct on this point. It seems to me, though, that you have placed insufficient emphasis on a very important passage in Marx, namely, where Marx says that in analysing annually produced value, foreign trade should be entirely discarded. The "dialectics" of Luxemburg seems to me (judging also from the article in Leipziger Volkezeitung) to be eclecticism’’. (Vol. 43, Jan. 1913). And again in a letter to L.B. Kamenev (Vol. 35) Lenin wrote, "I have read Rosa’s new book The Accumulation of Capital. She has got into a shocking muddle. I am very glad that Pannekoek, Eckstein and O. Bauer have all with one accord condemned her, and said against her what I said in 1899 against the Narodniks.

2. Rosa Luxembourg in an article entitled The National Question and Autonomy, published in 1908-09 opposed the right of nations to self-determination i.e. the right to secede. Countering Kautsky’s idea that the national state is the form most suited to present day conditions ... and that the multinational states are always those whose internal constitution has for some reason or other remained abnormal or underdeveloped, Rosa wrote, This ‘best’ national state is only an abstraction, which can easily be developed and defended theoretically, but which does not correspond to reality". She put forth arguments to the effect that the ‘right to self-determination’ of small nations is made illusory by the development of the great capitalist powers and imperialism.

Lenin in his polemic with Rosa pointed out, "For the question of the political self-determination of nations and their independence as states in bourgeois society, Rosa

Luxemburg has substituted the question of their economic independence". (Right of Nations to Self-determination, Vol. 20.)

Lenin referred to Asia and showed that the only country where the conditions for the most complete development of commodity production have been created is Japan, which is an independent national state.

Lenin said, "The national state is the rule and the ‘norm’ of capitalism, the multinational state represents backwardness or is an exception". (ibid.)

Rosa objected to the demand for independence of Poland from Russia, and argued that Poland had made rapid industrial development, precisely because its manufactured goods were marketed in Russia. She instead opted for autonomy for Poland, that too as an exception.

Lenin said, "If in a country whose state system is distinctly pre-capitalist there exists a nationally demarcated region where capitalism is rapidly developing, then the more rapidly that capitalism develops, the greater will be the antagonism between it and the pre-capitalist state system, and the more likely will be the separation of the progressive region from the whole with which it is connected not by "modern capitalistic", but by ‘Asiatic despotic’ ties" (ibid.).

Rosa objected to the inclusion of clause 9 (which dealt with the right of nations to self-determination) in the RSDLP programme, saying "Clause 9 gives no practical lead on the day-by-day policy of the proletariat, no practical solution of national problems".

On the question of ‘practicality’ Lenin had this to say: "The bourgeoisie always places its national demand in the forefront. and does so in a categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle. Theoretically, you cannot say in advance whether the bourgeois democratic revolution will end in a given nation seceding from another nation, or in its equality with the latter; in either case, the important thing for the proletariat is to ensure the development of its class. .... That is why the proletariat confines itself, so to speak, to the negative demand for recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving guarantees to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of another nation. This may not be ‘practical’, but it is in effect the best guarantee for the achievement of the most democratic of all possible solutions" (Ibid.).

Rosa was carried away by the struggle against nationalism in Poland and in her anxiety not to assist the nationalist bourgeoisie of Poland, rejected the right to secession in the programme of the Marxists in Russia. Supporting the right to secession, according to Rosa, is tantamount to supporting the bourgeois nationalism of the oppressed nations.

Lenin pointed out that the bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this that we unconditionally support. At the same time, Lenin stressed, we must oppose any tendency towards national exclusiveness.

Lenin added, "It is not difficult to understand that the recognition by the Marxists of the whole of Russia, and first and foremost by the great Russians, of the right of nations to secede in no way precludes agitation against secession by Marxists of a particular oppressed nation, just as the recognition of the right to divorce does not preclude agitation against divorce in a particular case" (ibid.).

For Lenin, however, "the right to self-determination is an exception to the general premise of centralisation. This exception is absolutely essential in view of reactionary Great-Russian nationalism; and any rejection of this exception is opportunism (as in the case of Rosa Luxemburg); it means foolishly playing into the hands of reactionary Great-Russian nationalism. But exception must not be too broadly interpreted. In this case, there is not and must not be anything more than the right to secede." (Letter to S.G. Shahnmyan, Vol. 19).

Lenin and Rosa, both being Marxists, were at one on the question that all the major and important economic and political questions of a capitalist society must be dealt with exclusively by the central parliament of the whole country concerned, not by the autonomous bodies of the individual regions. Lenin said, "Marxists will never, under any circumstances, advocate either the federal principle or decentralisation. The great centralised state is a tremendous historical step from medieval disunity to the future socialist unity of the whole world, and only via such a state (inseparably connected with capitalism), can there be any road to socialism". (Critical Remarks on the National Question, Vol. 20).

Lenin emphasised that in advocating centralism Marxists advocate exclusively democratic centralism. Democratic centralism demands local self-government with autonomy to every region having any appreciably distinct economic and social features, populations of a specific national composition etc.

In a letter to Shahnmyan (Vol. 19) Lenin wrote, "Right to autonomy? Wrong again. We are in favour of autonomy for all parts; we are in favour of the right to secession (and not in favour of everyone’s seceding). Autonomy is our plan for organising a democratic state. Secession is not what we plan at all. We do not advocate secession. In general, we are opposed to secession". According to Lenin, "The principle of centralism, which is essential for the development of capitalism is not violated by this (local and regional) autonomy, but on the contrary is applied by it democratically, not bureaucratically. The broad, free and rapid development of capitalism would be impossible, or at least greatly impeded, by the absence of such autonomy, which facilitates the concentration of capital, the development of the productive forces, the unity of the bourgeoisie and the unity of the proletariat on a country-wide scale; for bureaucratic interference in purely local (regional, national and other) questions is one of the greatest obstacles to centralism in serious, important and fundamental matters in particular’ (Critical Remarks on the National Question, Vol. 20).

On this premise Lenin castigated Rosa for her insistence that the demand for autonomy was applicable only to Poland and only by way of exception, and asked, "Why national areas with populations, not only of half-a-million, but even of 50,000 should not be able to enjoy autonomy, why such areas should not be able to unite in the most diverse ways with neighbouring areas of different dimensions into a single autonomous ‘territory’ if that is convenient or necessary for economic intercourse?" (Ibid.).

3. In 1903, after the second Congress of RSDLP, on the one hand, the Party was formally united, but on the other, it split into ‘majority’ (Bolsheviks) and ‘minority’ (Mensheviks). Immediately after the Congress the principles involved in this division were obscured by squabbling over co-option. The minority refused to work under the control of the central institutions unless the three ex-editors were again co-opted. In this fight, which lasted for two months the ‘minority’ used the weapons of boycott and disruption of the Party. The minority refused even to accept Lenin and Plekhanov’s proposal to put forth their point of view in Iskra, the central organ of the Party, and resorted to personal insults and abuse against members of the central bodies autocrats, bureaucrats, gendarmes, liars etc. They were accused of suppressing individual initiative and wanting to introduce slavish submission, blind obedience and so on. Plekhanov, though he condemned the minority’s anarchistic viewpoint, came out with an article What Should Not Be Done where he said that fighting revisionism did not necessarily mean fighting the revisionists. He further said that one should not always fight the anarchistic individualism so deeply ingrained in the Russian revolutionary, that at times some concessions were a better way to subdue it and avoid a split. Lenin could not share Plekhanov’s view and resigned from the editorial board. Minority editors were co-opted. Lenin’s offer to conclude peace on the basis of the minority keeping the central organ and the majority the central committee was rejected. The minority conducted its entire fight in the name of ‘principled’ struggle against bureaucracy, ultra-centralism, formalism, etc. It was at this juncture that Lenin wrote his famous book One Step Forward, Two Steps Back and analysing the Congress debates showed that the new division between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was only a variant of the old division into the proletarian revolutionary and intellectual-opportunist wing of the Party.

Rosa Luxemburg’s sympathies lay entirely with Mensheviks and she criticised Lenin’s book as a clear and detailed expression of the point of view of ‘intransigent centralism’. Rosa felt that there were no two opinions among the Russian Social-Democrats as to the need for a united Party, and that the whole controversy was over the degree of centralisation. She condemned Lenin for advocating ‘ultra-centralism’ and stressed that centralisation should be gradual.

Lenin in his reply to Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that controversy in the Russian Party "has principally been over whether the Central Committee and Central Organ should represent the trend of the majority of the Party Congress or whether they should not....does the comrade consider it normal for supposed Party Central Institutions to be dominated by the minority of the Party Congress? Can she imagine such a thing? Has she ever seen it in any Party?" (Vol. 7).

"Comrade Luxemburg fathers on me the idea that all the conditions already exist in Russia for forming a large and extremely centralised Party. Again an error of fact. Nowhere in my book did I voice such an idea, let alone advocate it. The thesis I advanced expressed and expresses something else. I insisted, namely, that all the conditions already existed for expecting Party Congress decisions to be observed, and that the time was past when a Party institution could be supplanted by a private circle. I brought proof that certain academics in our Party had shown themselves inconsistent and unstable, and that they had no right to lay the blame for their own lack of discipline upon the Russian proletarians. The Russian workers have already pronounced repeatedly, on various occasions, for observance of the Party Congress decisions (Ibid.)

Lenin charged Rosa with ignoring the concrete facts of struggle in RSDLP and indulging in abstraction, thereby perverting Marxian dialectics.

Afterwards, however, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky were won over to the point of view of the Bolsheviks. Lenin said in 1909, "They were won over because the Bolsheviks upheld, not the letter of their own, definitely their own factional theory, but the general spirit and meaning of revolutionary Social-Democratic tactics." (Faction of Supporters of Otzovism and God-Building, Vol. 16).

4. The 1905 revolution in Russia brought to the fore the practical experience of Soviet power and the dictatorship of the proletariat. In contrast to the Mensheviks, Rosa immediately realised its significance and made a critical analysis of the same in meetings and in the press.

5. Rosa and Lenin again in 1913 on the question of the approach towards liquidators parted ways.

Rosa considered that what was going on in the Russian Party was nothing but the chaos of factional strife. She blamed the Leninist group for being most active in fomenting split. Rosa felt that differences in the Russian Party did not preclude the possibility of joint activities and it was possible to restore unity through agreement and compromises. She made a proposal on similar lines to the International Socialist Bureau in December 1913.

Lenin sharply differed from this opinion and reiterated that what was going on in Russia in no way resembled the chaos of factional strife, but was rather a struggle against liquidators. Lenin claimed that it was through this struggle only that a genuine workers social-democratic Party was being built up and already the overwhelming majority of class conscious workers — four-fifths of them — had been won over to the Party position.

In his report to the Brussels Conference, Lenin quoted from the 1908 Party resolution which had defined liquidationism as, "an attempt on the part of some of the Party intelligentsia to liquidate the existing organisation of the RSDLP and to substitute for it an amorphous organisation acting at all cost within the limits of legality, even at the cost of openly abandoning the programme, tactics and traditions of the Party". (Vol. 20).

Lenin further said. "Nowhere in Western Europe has there ever been, nor can there ever be, a question of whether it is permissible to bear the title of Party member and at the same time advocate the dissolution of that Party, to argue that the Party is useless and unnecessary, and that another Party be substituted for it. Nowhere in Western Europe does the question concern the very existence of the Party as it does with us i.e. whether that Party is to be or not to be.

"This is not disagreement over a question of organisation, of how the Party should be built, but disagreement concerning the very existence of the Party. Here, conciliation, agreement and compromise are totally out of question.

6. With the advent of the imperialist war, Kautskyites, who dominated the Second International and the German Social-Democratic Party, took the social-chauvinist position and advocated support to one’s own bourgeoisie in the predatory war. Rosa Luxemburg came out strongly against this line and called German social-democracy a stinking corpse.

When in Russia Mensheviks sanctioned Kerensky’s offensive Rosa severely condemned them for diluting the internationalist content of the Russian revolution.

Lenin hailed Rosa as a great internationalist and both worked together towards the formation of a new International, after the collapse of the Second International.

7. Rosa had certain apprehensions about the November 1917 revolution where Bolsheviks seized power. She had her reservations about the process of seizure of power, which she felt was undemocratic, and about the Leninist mode of excessive emphasis on centralism. Rosa felt that it would stifle the initiative of the workers from below and would give rise to bureaucratic distortions. Such views are contained in her manuscripts written in prison in 1918.

However, Clara Zetkin, who knew Rosa very closely, has testified that after her release from prison in December 1918, she had realised that her views were wrong and were based on insufficient informations.

8. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht conducted a sharp political struggle against social-democratic traitors in Germany, reorganised the German Communist Party and stood at the forefront of the November 1918 revolution in Germany.

On Jan. 15, 1919 Rosa and Karl were murdered in cold blood by the white guards with the connivance of the government of Social-Democrats.

In a protest rally following their murder Lenin gave the following speech, "Today the bourgeoisie and the social-traitors are jubilating in Berlin — they have succeeded in murdering Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Elbert and Scheidemann who for four years led the workers to the slaughter for the sake of depredation, have now assumed the role of butchers of the proletarian leaders. The example of the German revolution proves that democracy is only a camouflage for bourgeois robbery and the most savage violence. Death to the butchers."

In 1922 when Paul Levi, a German Menshevik, planned to republish precisely those writings of Rosa Luxemburg where she had differed with Lenin, Lenin commented that Paul Levi’s intention was to get into the good graces of the bourgeoisie and the leaders of the Second and the Second -and -half-Internationals.

Lenin wrote, "We shall reply to this by quoting two lines from a Russian fable, ‘Eagles may at times fly lower than hens but hens can never rise to the height of eagles’. Rosa Luxemburg was mistaken on the question of the independence of Poland; she was mistaken in 1903 in her appraisal of Menshevism; she was mistaken on the theory of accumulation of capital; she was mistaken in July 1914, when, together with Plekhanov, Vandervelde, Kautsky and others she advocated unity between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; she was mistaken in what she wrote in prison in 1918 (She corrected most of these mistakes at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 when she was released). But inspite of her mistakes she was and remains for us an eagle. And 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. ‘Since August 4, 1914, German social-democracy has become a stinking corpse’ — this statement will make Rosa Luxemburg’s name famous in the history of the international working class movement. And, of course, in the backyard of the working class movement, among the dungheaps, hens like Paul Levi, Scheidemann, Kautsky and all their fraternity will cackle over the mistakes committed by the great Communist". (Notes of a Publicist, Vol. 33).

This is the best tribute to the memory of Rosa Luxemburg and it sums up everything.