Rosa Luxemburg: Blanquism and social democracy

Submitted by cathy n on 14 May, 2010 - 9:32 Author: Rosa Luxemburg
rosa luxemburg

In the wake of the 1905 revolution, Rosa Luxemburg staunchly defends the Bolsheviks against the Menshevik accusation that the Bolsheviks are "Blanquists".

Comrade Plekhanov has published in the [Polish newspaper] Kuryer a detailed article in which he accuses the so-called Bolsheviks of Blanquism [1].

It is not our job to defend the Russian comrades against whom comrade Plekhanov brings up the artillery of his erudition and his dialectics. For sure they can do that themselves. But the problem in question calls forth a few remarks which may be of interest to our readers, and so we give them some space.

Comrade Plekhanov, to characterise Blanquism, quotes Engels on Blanqui, a French revolutionary of the 1840s from whose name the designation of a whole tendency derives. Engels says:

“In his political activity he was mainly a ‘man of action’, believing that a small and well organised minority, who would attempt a political stroke of force at the opportune moment, could carry the mass of the people with them by a few successes at the start and thus make a victorious revolution... From Blanqui’s assumption, that any revolution may be made by the outbreak of a small revolutionary minority, follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship after the success of the venture. This is, of course, a dictatorship, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organised under the dictatorship of one or several individuals”.

Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s comrade-in-arms, is indubitably a great authority, but the question of whether this characterisation of Blanqui is completely just can nevertheless be discussed. For, in 1848, Blanqui was not at all obliged to presume that his group would be a “small minority”; on the contrary, then, in that time of powerful revolutionary stirrings, he reckoned with certainty that the whole body of the working people, in Paris at least if not in France, would respond to his appeal for struggle against the deceitful and iniquitous policy of a bourgeois ministry seeking to “cheat the people of their victory”. However, the basic question is elsewhere: that comrade Plekhanov tries to demonstrate that the characterisation of Blanqui made by Engels applies exactly to the so-called “Bolsheviks” (whom Plekhanov, with no more ado, calls “the minority” because they found themselves in a minority at the reunification congress).

He says, in so many words: “This whole characterisation applies completely to our present minority”.

He justifies this statement in the following way: “The relation of the Blanquists to the popular masses was utopian in the sense that they had not understood the significance of the revolutionary autonomy of those masses. According to their schemes, only the conspirators were properly speaking active, and the masses merely supported them, carried along by the well organised minority.

Comrade Plekhanov affirms that the Russian “Bolshevik” comrades (we prefer to stick to the usual terminology) have succumbed to this “original sin of Blanquism”. In our opinion, comrade Plekhanov does not prove his case. For comparison with the members of [the 19th century populist movement] Narodnaya Volya [People’s Will], who really were Blanquists, proves nothing, and the malevolent remark that Zhelyabov, the hero and leader of Narodnaya Volya, was endowed with a more astute political instinct than the “Bolshevik” leader Lenin is in too bad taste to detain us. As we have already said, it is not our business to break lances in defence of the “Bolsheviks” and comrade Lenin, for they let nothing past them from anyone. We are concerned with the root of the matter. The question is: in the Russian revolution of today, is Blanquism possible? If such a tendency could exist, could it exert any influence?

We think that it is enough to pose the question thus for anyone with any awareness of the current revolution, anyone who has had direct contact with it, to give a negative reply. The whole difference between the French situation of 1848 and the current situation in the Russian empire consists exactly in the fact that the relationship between the “organised minority”, that is the proletarian party, and the masses has fundamentally changed. In 1848 the revolutionaries, to the degree that they were socialists, made desperate efforts to bring socialist ideas to the masses, to stop them supporting empty bourgeois liberalism. That socialism was nebulous, utopian, and petty-bourgeois.

Today in Russia, things present themselves differently: neither our [Poland’s] rancid old liberal democrats, nor the Cadet organisation, the Tsarist constitutionalists of Russia, nor any other national “progressive” bourgeois party in another part of the [Tsarist] empire, has been able to win the broad working masses. Today, those masses are gathering under the socialist banner: when the revolution broke out, they placed themselves, of their own initiative, almost spontaneously, under the red flag. And that is the best evidence in favour of our party.

We do not want to hide the fact that in 1903 were were still only a handful, that as a party, in the strict sense of the term, as effectively organised comrades, we were at the most a few hundred, and when we appeared publicly or demonstrated only a small band of workers joined us. Today, we as a party are counted in tens of thousands.

Where does the difference come from? Is it because we have so many genius leaders in our party? Because we are, perhaps, such celebrated conspirators? Not at all. For sure, none of our leaders, that is, none of those to whom the party has confided responsibilities, would want to expose themselves to ridicule by inviting a comparison between themselves and old Blanqui, yesteryear’s lion of the revolution. Few of our agitators can match the old conspirators of the Blanquist group as regards their personal catchment and their organisational abilities. How is our success, and the lack of success of the Blanquists, explained? Quite simply by the fact that the “masses” are different “masses”: the groups of workers who today are fighting Tsarism; people whom life itself has made into socialists; people who absorbed hate of the established order with their mothers’ milk; people whom necessity has taught to think socialistically.

That is the difference. Neither the leaders, nor even the ideas, but social and economic conditions, have given rise to it — conditions which are such that they exclude any possibility of a common class struggle uniting the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

Since the masses are different, since the proletariat is different, we cannot speak today of Blanquist or conspiratorial tactics. Blanqui and his heroic comrades made superhuman efforts to draw the masses into class struggle; they did not succeed, because they had to do with workers who had not yet broken with the guild system, who were still immersed in petty bourgeois ideology.

We social democrats [i.e. Marxists] have a much simpler and easier task: today we just have to work to lead the class struggle which has ignited with an inexorable necessity. The Blanquists tried to pull the masses behind them, while we, the social democrats [Marxists] today, are almost pushed along by the masses. The difference is great, as great as that between a pilot who with great efforts gets his boat to move against the stream and one who steers a boat carried along by the torrential current. The first has not enough strength and he will not achieve his goal, while the second has only the task of making sure that the boat does not deviate from its route, does not shatter on a reef or get stuck on a sandbank.

Comrade Plekhanov should calm down as regards the “revolutionary autonomy of the masses”. That autonomy exists, nothing will hold it back, and all the bookish sermons (we ask pardon for this expression, but we can find no other) about its necessity can only bring smiles from those who are working among and with the masses.

We contest the idea that the comrades of the so-called “majority” in today’s Russia were victims of Blanquist deviations in the course of the revolution, as comrade Plekhanov reproaches them for having been. It is possible that there were traces in the organisational plan which comrade Lenin drafted in 1902, but that lies in the past — the distant past, since today life is moving quickly, dizzyingly quickly. Those errors have been corrected by life itself, and there is no danger of them being repeated. There is nothing scary about the ghost of Blanquism, because it cannot come back to life these days. The danger we face, on the contrary, is that comrade Plekhanov and his “minority” supporters who fear Blanquism so much will fall into the opposite extreme and ground the boat on a sandbank. We see that opposite extreme in the fact that these comrades so fear being in the minority that they reckon on masses outside the proletariat.

From that flow the calculations about the Duma [fake Parliament convened by the Tsar]; the false slogans in the Central Committee’s “directives” about supporting the Cadet gentlemen; the attempt to raise the demand “Down with the bureaucrat ministry” [i.e. the Menshevik slogan “For a Duma ministry”], and similar errors. The boat will not remain grounded on the sandbank; there is no danger of that; the tumultuous stream of the swelling revolution will quickly push along the boat of the workers; but it would be a pity if these mistakes lose us even one moment of time.

In the same way, the notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” has taken a different significance from before. Frederick Engels justly emphasises that the Blanquists envisaged not a dictatorship of “the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution”. Today, the question is presented quite differently. It is not an organisation of conspirators that “makes the revolution” and can envisage establishing its dictatorship. Even the Narodnaya Volya types and their claimed heirs, the Russian Social Revolutionaries [populists], have long ceased dreaming of any such thing.

If the “Bolshevik” comrades today speak of the dictatorship of the proletariat today, they have never given it the old Blanquist meaning, and nor have they ever fallen into the mistake of Narodnaya Volya, which dreamed of “taking power for itself”. On the contrary, they have affirmed that the current revolution can find its culmination when the proletariat, the whole revolutionary class, has seized the state machine. The proletariat, as the most revolutionary element, will perhaps take on its role of liquidator of the old regime by “taking power for itself” in order to oppose the counter-revolution and stop the revolution being weakened by the bourgeoisie which is reactionary in its very nature. No revolution has ever been concluded other than by the dictatorship of a class, and all the indications are that at the present time the proletariat can become that liquidator of the old regime.

Obviously, no social-democrat [Marxist] indulges in the illusion that the proletariat can maintain itself in power: if it could maintain itself in power, it would then bring its class ideas to dominion, it would realise socialism. Its forces are not sufficient for that today, since the proletariat, in the strict sense of the word, constitutes a minority of society in the Russian Empire. The realisation of socialism by a minority is unconditionally excluded, since the very idea of socialism excludes the domination of a minority. Thus, on the day after the political victory of the proletariat over Tsarism, the majority will withdraw from it the power that it will have conquered.

To speak concretely: after the fall of Tsarism, power will pass into the hands of the most revolutionary part of society, the proletariat, because the proletariat will seize all the posts and will remain on its guard as long as power is not in the hands of those legally called upon to hold it, in the hands of the new government, which only the Constituent Assembly, as the legislative organ elected by the whole population, can determine. The plain fact is that in society not the proletariat, but the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry, constitutes the majority, and that consequently, in the Constituent Assembly, not the Social Democrats but the peasant and petty bourgeois democrats will form the majority. We can deplore this fact, but not change it.

Such is, in broad outline, the situation, according to the assessment of the “Bolsheviks”, and all the Social Democratic organisations and parties outside Russia itself [i.e. in the non-Russian bits of the Tsarist empire] share this vision. Where the Blanquism is in here, is difficult to see.

To justify his assertion even superficially comrade Plekhanov is obliged to rip the words of comrade Lenin and his supporters from their context. If we wanted to do that sort of thing, we could also show that the “Mensheviks” have recently been “Blanquists”, starting with comrade Parvus and finishing with comrade... Plekhanov! But that would be a sterile game in scholasticism. Comrade Plekhanov’s article is embittered and embittering, which is a bad thing: “When Jupiter rages, it is that Jupiter errs.”

It is high time to finish with this scholasticism and with all this fuss about who is “Blanquist” and who is “orthodox Marxist”. Today, it is a matter of whether, in current conditions, the tactic recommended by comrade Plekhanov and the Menshevik comrades is correct — a tactic which aims to work with the Duma as much as possible, and outside the Duma with the elements which are represented there; or whether on the contrary the tactic is correct which we like the Bolshevik comrades are pursuing, a tactic based on the principle that the centre of gravity is situated outside the Duma, in the active presence on the scene of the revolutionary popular masses. So far the Menshevik comrades have been able to persuade no-one of the correctness of their views, and no-one will be any more persuaded by them linking the “Blanquist” label to their adversaries.

Originally published as “Blanquism and social-democracy”, Czerwony Sztander [Red Flag], Cracow, no. 82, 27 June 1906. Translated here from a German version in the volume Die Polnische Schriften, edited by Jurgen Hentze, pp.298ff. Another English translation, by Peter Manson, exists, but that is from the French translation of the German translation of the Polish original.

[1] The German text gives the title of Plekhanov’s article as “Wo bleibt die Rechte?”, roughly, where is the right wing? But it seems to be the same article as referred to in Lenin’s article, “How comrade Plekhanov argues about social-democratic tactics”, Collected Works volume 10, p.460: the Plekhanov article is there referred to as “On Tactics and Tactlessness”.


Submitted by martin on Sun, 18/03/2018 - 09:35

This article by Eric Blanc is a well-researched follow-on, and covers other issues like the Polish national question: click here.

Also online in three parts at

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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