Rosa Luxemburg on 1905

Submitted by AWL on 11 September, 2019 - 10:19 Author: Martin Thomas

“The extent to which the party rises to the occasion [of a revolutionary upsurge] — that depends in the greatest degree on how widely [the Marxists have] known how to make their influence felt among the masses in the pre-revolutionary period...”

It depends on “the extent to which [they were] already successful in putting together a solid central core of politically well-trained worker activists with clear goals, how large the sum of all their political and organisational work has been”.

Volume 3 of the new Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, published this year, shows how false the idea is that Luxemburg looked to spontaneous mass strikes to make party organisation unimportant or secondary in the fight for socialism.

The volume is largely a collection of Luxemburg’s day-to-day reports and comments on the revolution in the Tsarist empire in 1905, appearing mostly in Vorwärts, the central paper of the German Social Democratic Party (the SPD), or in the press of the small Polish revolutionary socialist party of which Luxemburg was a leader from exile, the SDKPiL.

Throughout the year, Luxemburg looked after a regular “rubric” in Vorwärts, entitled “The Revolution in Russia”. In November and December, until she moved to Poland on 28 December to be active there, she was chief editor of Vorwärts.

In that period especially she produced many articles which were collations of what could be gleaned from bourgeois press and agency reports, and occasional direct communication from socialists on the spot, about events in the Tsarist empire.

The articles sketch the idea which Luxemburg developed at length in 1906 in her famous pamphlet The Mass Strike that mass strikes “can neither be forbidden nor arbitrarily triggered”. They were a form of class struggle shaped by history: the question was how socialists would shape and develop them. Mass strike movements would develop organisation as much as prior organisation would help to develop mass strikes.

It is even clearer in this volume than in The Mass Strike that Luxemburg rejected the idea, as she put it, of the mass strike “as the sole means of achieving bliss”. At a certain point, she was clear, the revolutionary upsurge expressed in a mass strike movement had to move on to an armed uprising.

Nor would mass strikes be “spontaneous” in the sense of being “sent down to us from heaven”. At the start of the movement in Russia Luxemburg wrote that “today’s revolution... grew up historically out of the Social Democratic [i.e. Marxist] movement”.

Mass strike movements were built on preparation, but would always be a “surprise” because “the piled-up grievances, the mass of instinctive, half-unclear feelings of class antagonism, are commonly much more pervasive among the people than the agitators themselves realise”.

At the tipping point, only in action would “that which perhaps only yesterday was an instinct, an obscure urge or inclination among the masses [be] forged in the fire of events into political consciousness”.

In the nature of the working class, “downing tools and going out on strike... is the natural first step” once it has decided to rebel. The question then is, what will the second, third, fourth steps be.

Then the Marxists “must aim at meeting events head-on in a planned way, to try as much as possible to take into their hands the helm to steer the movements of the masses and give direction...” To us falls the task “of liberating the proletarian rising from the confines of an elementary form of eruption”.

That task is not an administrative one, but one of “political education”, or “political education and organisation” in the sense in which those “two tasks” are “better said, a single task”.

“Covering things up and smoothing over contradictions”, which (said Luxemburg), some West European socialist leaders had made a habit of, in the name of sustaining the organisation, cannot be the answer. “It is not the organisation that comes before everything else, but above all the revolutionary spirit of enlightenment”.

When taking on the chief-editor job at Vorwärts, she wrote an article for the paper as a prospectus. She would make theoretical supplements more frequent. “Along with detailed critical commentaries on outstanding newly published literature in the fields of social science, history, politics, and belle lettres, we would also run short popular-science articles.

“We would like to arrange for critical commentary on particularly notable events in our party... so that our readers will obtain a definite picture... of the intellectual life of our party press”.

She wanted to draw readers into party debates, rather than giving them just smoothly-processed “consensus” agitation.
“Wilhelm Liebknecht said in his reminiscences about Karl Marx that politics was for him, above all else, a subject of systematic study. And in this respect, Marx should be a model for us all. As Social Democrats we are and must always be learners”.

The volume contains surprisingly few translations from the Russian Marxist press (which no doubt reached Berlin erratically and with delay). Luxemburg translated a manifesto-article by Trotsky from December 1905, but not much else.

It is clear, though, that Luxemburg aligned herself much more with the Bolsheviks and with Trotsky than with the Mensheviks. She still counselled conciliation between the two factions.

In the heat of the revolution, that did happen: it was more in the analyses and drawing-of-lessons after the revolution’s defeat that the division between the factions became politically clear.

The shape of revolution

Early in 1905, especially, Luxemburg argued that “the kind of revolution that has broken out in Russia nurtures itself by stretching for years and assuming an ever-more radical character”.

Sarcastically she advised the Tsar, who was apparently holidaying abroad in the hope that just a couple of months away would spare him the turmoil, that he should “study the English and the French revolutions”.

Those revolutions, starting with limited disputes in the top circles, had indeed gone on for several years. And the French revolution of 1789-94 was still “the” revolution for radicals when Luxemburg was writing: her articles frequently report on strikers and rebels in Russia singing the Marseillaise.

Though not as clearly as Trotsky would in his summing-up of 1905 (Results and Prospects), Luxemburg also explored how this revolution was different from the old model.

This time, the working class, rather than being drawn in eventually as an indistinct part of the general populace, was the distinct leading force right from the start. That was shown by the demands of the movement — the eight-hour day was at the top from the start, together with freedom to organise and a Constituent Assembly — and by the distinctly working-class method of struggle, the mass strikes.

Broader sections were drawn in. The reports often mentioned strikes by pharmacists. Meetings to organise the struggle were generally reported as taking place in university buildings. High school students were often active. Sailors and soldiers rebelled.

A report from an informant in Moscow which Luxemburg wrote up for Vorwärts even described bank officials and businessmen attending revolutionary meetings, which “began around nine in the morning and stretched on until midnight”.

From about October the peasants followed the cities into action. But the working class was the leading force.

So “things are no longer as they were at one time in France... where there was a battle for legal and political guarantees that would allow the unhindered development of capitalism and the rule of the bourgeoisie...”

It was instead “a battle for political and legal guarantees that would allow an unimpeded class struggle by the proletariat against the economic and political domination of the bourgeoisie”.

Although Luxemburg’s articles were as scornful of the Russian bourgeoisie and liberals as Trotsky or Lenin were, she assumed the revolution, or this phase anyway, will end with them in power. In fact, she even described it as a merit of the Russian workers’ movement that it does “not have those utopian socialist illusions” which emerged in the bourgeois revolutions of the past.

“In Russia the proletariat does not now have as its goal the establishment of socialism — it wants only to establish the capitalist-bourgeois preconditions for socialism”.

Nowhere did she come to Trotsky’s idea that the Russian working class, by first leading the fight for bourgeois democracy, could end by taking power which could be consolidated as workers’ revolution spread internationally, or even to Lenin’s more convoluted idea of a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”

Missing also was Lenin’s idea that even when Russia was pushed into “establishing the capitalist-bourgeois preconditions”, working-class intervention could swing the issue between radically different ways of doing that: the “Prussian road” of bureaucratic reforms from above (even if impelled by pressure from below) and the revolutionary road clearing out feudal relics in a Jacobin way.

There was even a strain of benign fatalism. In previous revolutions, Luxemburg wrote, “fatigue and exhaustion are unavoidable phenomena”, leading to periods of regression after the revolutionary peak.

But, she claimed, since this worker-led revolution knows more precisely what is about, it “does not know, cannot know, regression or fatigue in combat”.

Towards the end of 1905, Luxemburg tried again to define what was new about this Russian revolution, and came closer to Trotsky’s or Lenin’s ideas.

This revolution was not just Russian but also “a milestone in world history... a prologue for other revolutions [in the West]... which can have no other conclusion than the much maligned dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Moreover, she says, “the proletariat is demanding the eight-hour day, a people’s militia, and a republic — propositions directed toward bourgeois society, not socialist demands. However, these demands are so subversive of the rule of capital that they can be regarded as forms that are transitional to the dictatorship of the proletariat”.

“And thus this revolution... has become a transitional form — in transition from the bourgeois-democratic revolutions of the past to the proletarian revolutions of the future”.

In her prospectus when becoming chief editor of Vorwärts, Luxemburg had promised: “critical commentary on particularly notable events in our party... so that our readers will obtain a definite picture... of the intellectual life of our party press”.

Actually her record on that was patchy. Readers would have got little idea of the differences among the Russian Marxists during 1905.

Trotsky (in The Permanent Revolution) commented that before he became a Bolshevik he had fallen into “a sort of social-revolutionary fatalism. I believed that the logic of the class struggle would compel both factions to pursue the same revolutionary line”.

Luxemburg’s 1905 articles suggest a similar approach. More than once she recapitulated the history of the Russian Marxist movement for her readers, always minus the 1903 split. She presented the “Economistic” phase (mid-1890s to 1901) as if it dominated the whole movement (it did not), and as if it was corrected almost automatically.

The history, she claimed, “does not appear as a series of zig-zags... [but] as an entirely logical course of development in which each higher stage arose out of the preceding one...”

Maybe, however, her “philosophical” detachment there was a product of uncertainty rather than of general attitude: on the national question, as in her side-swipes against conservative SPD trade union officials, she was not “philosophical” or “detached” at all.

Long before 1905, Luxemburg had developed what she thought was a solid economic grounding for the idea that the restoration of an independent Polish state was an utopian, turn-back-the-clock demand.

Poland had been divided into three parts, ruled by the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires. The bigger part, in the Russian empire, had been capitalistically developed by the Tsarist state in a way integrated and intertwined with the general capitalist development of the empire.

The Polish bourgeoisie did not and could not want to back out of that development. Thus there was no basis for a bourgeois nationalist movement. And the working class could have no interest in nationalist demands if there was no bourgeois basis for them.

This was a case of arguing too directly from economic trends to political conclusions. So history would show when Poland became independent in 1918. And the strain in the argument was already visible in 1905.

Luxemburg did not dismiss national oppression. Even before the official statements from her party, the SDKPiL, she vigorously raised demands for national autonomy for Poland and for schooling in the Polish language.

But in her summary statements, presumably finding the learned “economic” argument too cumbersome, she reduced herself to suggesting that no special “national” demands were necessary.

“Events... have already given a clear lesson on the only way in which the national question... can be solved... The current revolutionary rising of the proletariat... in at the same time the first act in the process of fraternisation among the peoples of the Tsarist empire”.

As if workers of different nationalities uniting in strikes solved the national question by itself, rather than (as it in fact does) improving the conditions for solving it through a democratic programme.

Correspondingly, she claimed in her reports that other Polish socialists who supported Polish independence (the PPS) had become irrelevant sects bypassed by events (which they hadn’t), rather than dissecting their arguments.

She did something of the same with anarchists, claiming there were only a couple of dozen of them in the whole of Russia, which again was not true.

She reported frequently on antisemitic atrocities carried out in 1905 by the pro-Tsarist Black Hundreds — in November 1905 she reported 15,000 Jews killed and more than 100,000 injured in Black Hundred pogroms.

But always as if there could be by definition no problem of antisemitism in the workers’ movement.

More: WL collection, Luxemburg’s Selected Writings on the German Revolution

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