Did Rosa Luxemburg Take Back Her Critique of the Russian Revolution?

Chris Cutrone,
Peter Hudis,
Jacqueline Rose

The following comments on whether Luxemburg took back her 1918 critique of the Russian Revolution are in response to The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg Vol. I). The original debate on Principia Dialectica, was entitled ‘More on Bolshevik censorship’ – Editors

  1. COMMENT by Peter Hudis, SOURCE: London Review of Books /Summer 2011

Jacqueline Rose errs in stating that Lenin wanted to ‘burn’ Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Russian Revolution’ (LRB, 16 June). She seems to be attributing to Lenin a comment reportedly made by Leo Jogiches. Jogiches was surely joking, however. He opposed publishing the book at the time because he was concerned about alienating the Bolshevik regime at a moment when the newly formed Communist Party desperately needed its help. But Jogiches would have been the last person to destroy any of her writings; he spent the last weeks of his life – at great danger to himself – gathering together as many of her writings as he could.

Lenin attacked Paul Levi for publishing the book, in 1922, on the grounds that Levi wanted ‘to achieve popularity with the bourgeoisie by republishing precisely those works of Luxemburg in which her errors appear’. This comes up in the same letter (to Pravda) in which he called her an ‘eagle’ and insisted on the publication of ‘the complete edition of her works’. Lenin applied tremendous pressure on Levi’s allies to get them to state publicly that Luxemburg had ‘changed her mind’ about what she said in ‘The Russian Revolution’ (she hadn’t).

Lenin’s preference was for Luxemburg’s complete works to be published, rather than ‘The Russian Revolution’ on its own, as that would better contextualise their points of agreement (of which there were many) as well as disagreement. Yet he also wanted to see her work appear in full and never advocated burning anything by her. While Luxemburg’s criticisms of Lenin’s centralism and authoritarianism remain of crucial importance, she still regarded him as a comrade and a friend.

Peter Hudis
Chicago

  1. COMMENT by Jacqueline Rose, SOURCE: London Review of Books /Summer 2011

Peter Hudis argues that Lenin did not want to destroy Rosa Luxemburg’s text ‘The Russian Revolution’, and that the remark was a joke – not a very funny one – on the part of her former lover Leo Jogiches (Letters, 14 July). Luxemburg’s biographer Elzbieta Ettinger states clearly that, even if it did not originate with Lenin himself, the instruction to destroy the manuscript came from Moscow. But this isn’t the issue. As Hudis acknowledges, the Communist Party’s attempt to discredit Luxemburg’s text was sustained. Lenin was indeed her friend and comrade. But it is hard not to read in this episode a classic (male) put-down of a (woman) follower’s right to challenge the discourse of the master. If only they had listened to her. Today we know that the refusal to recognise the dangers of autocracy inside the Communist Party played a key part in its subsequent failings.

  1. COMMENT by principiadialectica.co.uk

Jacqueline Rose (below) is right to disagree with Peter Hudis on the subject of how Lenin treated Rosa Luxemburg. In fact Rosa L. had criticized Lenin and the Bolsheviks wayback in 1904. She called them a bunch of maniacs hell bent on taking power. For that is what they were. In fact they dug their own graves by taking power away from the Russian people. Stalin would extend that gap. Hudis and the different marxo-humanoids cannot understand that. Hudis is a real donkey …

Hence Jacqueline Rose is right to confront Hudis and his poxy support of Lenin.

  1. COMMENT by Chris Cutrone, August 11

Actually, both Hudis and Rose are wrong: It was Luxemburg herself who, when she was released from prison, said that “you could burn all that” about the manuscript of The Russian Revolution. Luxemburg went on to write and publish a critique of the Bolsheviks in “The Russian Tragedy,”

http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/09/11.htm

This was a little-known text outside Germany, only recently translated into English, that Hudis and Rose have likely never read. It was in this criticism of the Bolsheviks that Luxemburg herself published (unlike The Russian Revolution pamphlet she wrote in prison, which she abandoned), in which Luxemburg dropped her accusations against the Bolsheviks for being “undemocratic,” not least because she came to agree with the Bolsheviks on upholding “soviet (workers’ councils) power” against the Constituent Assembly, with which she took issue in her unpublished pamphlet The Russian Revolution. That was the key issue on which Luxemburg “changed her mind,” not least because she opposed the calling of a Constituent Assembly in Germany, and instead called for “all power to the workers’ (and soldiers’) councils!”

But Luxemburg remained critical of the Bolsheviks (in “The Russian Tragedy”) and warned presciently of the danger that they would by force of circumstance come to commit “moral suicide.” I agree that this indeed happened, but the question is when, how, and for what reasons. I disagree that it was because Lenin & co. were “power-hungry maniacs,” or that the moral suicide was in 1920-21. Neither did Luxemburg think the moral suicide had taken place by the time of her death in 1919.

Rather, Luxemburg had thought, in 1904, that the organizational model advocated by Lenin, in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904), could allow Russian Social Democracy, in its young and undeveloped condition, to be hijacked by “petit bourgeois radicals” and thus disempower the workers in what she thought would be an impending bourgeois-democratic and not socialist revolution.

But Luxemburg didn’t think that this applied to Lenin himself. And it is important to note that after the 1905 Revolution in Russia, Luxemburg came to see greater possibilities for the working class to act independently in the struggle for democracy and socialism and Russia. 1905 rendered Luxemburg’s 1904 criticism of Lenin obsolete and irrelevant, because Russian Social Democracy grew and developed beyond its earlier condition, alleviating the dangers of sterile sectarianism Luxemburg feared.

It was in and after 1905 that Luxemburg began working much more closely with Lenin, and continued to do so up until her death in 1919, with only a very brief disagreement over the Bolsheviks declaring themselves exclusively to be the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party at a party convention in 1912, in which she differed from Lenin. But by the time WWI broke out in 1914, Luxemburg and Lenin were collaborating again, leading to the formation of the Zimmerwald Left and the Third International.

  1. COMMENT by David Black, August 12, 2011

Peter Hudis has a longer piece first published on appeared on the Verso Books authors’ blog on Rose’s LRB review , in which he writes:

‘What I find especially important is Rose’s discussion of how Luxemburg embraced uncertainty “as central to life and revolution.” There is much to be said of this. Luxemburg understood, far better than most radicals before and after her, that revolution is about the unexpected. She never approached political phenomena with that “all too knowing look” that says, “well, we know how that is going to turn out.“ Her deep appreciation of spontaneous revolt was inseparable from an understanding that the actions of masses of people rarely if ever conform to the predictions of the ”politically informed.” This year’s Arab Spring, so unexpected in both its timing and form, certainly brings to life Luxemburg’s keen appreciation of the need to remain open to the possibilities released by struggles for emancipation. ‘

‘At the same time, we need to be wary of the temptation to explain her contribution by a singular principle. While she held that “socialism is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future,” she also considered it of great importance to directly delve into that mist by raising the question of what happens after the seizure of power. This was shown most of all in her critique of the Bolsheviks in The Russian Revolution. She understood that the revolution would strangle itself if the curtailment of democracy by the Bolsheviks persisted. Her book not only contained an important warning about the consequences of Lenin and Trotsky’s policies, it also pointed to the necessity for spontaneity and democratic deliberation to continue and deepen after any revolution. For Luxemburg, an emphasis on the unpredictable nature of revolution did not foreclose the need to single out specific forms, such as democracy, which a revolution must incorporate in order to be successful. For social forms that facilitate spontaneous development enable the unpredictable nature of human praxis to begin to discover itself. ‘

In full at:
http://www.internationalmarxisthumanist.org/articles/comments-jacqueline-roses-review-letters-rosa-luxemburg-peter-hudis/

  1. COMMENT by Peter Hudis August 18, 2011

For someone who speaks with such a self-assured tone, Chris Cutrone displays a surprising lack of knowledge of about some rather elementary facts about Rosa Luxemburg’s attitude towards Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution.

First, Cutrone is wrong that the article “The Russian Tragedy” was (as he puts it) “only recently translated into English.” It was translated and published in English almost four decades ago by Robert Looker in his widely-available collection Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political Writings (New York: Grove Press, 1974), pp. 235-243. It was also widely available, known, and discussed in German for decades previously. I have no idea why Chris thinks that this is a piece that I have “likely never read”—especially since I have quoted from it on many occasions. In any case, a 30-second google search would have disabused him of his illusion that the piece is “a little-known text outside of Germany, only recently translated into English.”

Second, “The Russian Tragedy” contains not a single expression by Luxemburg indicating that she had “changed her mind” (the words are put in quote marks by Chris even though they are his) about the substance of her critique of Lenin and Trotsky contained in The Russian Revolution. She instead took her critique further, accusing the Bolsheviks of planning to forge an alliance with German imperialism (an eventuality that never came to pass, despite her very serious concerns about the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk). Nowhere in “The Russian Tragedy” does Luxemburg take back her sharp criticism of Lenin and Trotsky for repressing democracy and freedom of expression and creating the CHEKA. She instead indicates a change of view regarding their dispersal of the Constituent Assembly. But that was never the crux of her dispute with the Bolsheviks to begin with, so it hardly can be interpreted to mean that she “changed her mind” about her critique of the Bolsheviks as a whole.

Third, Chris claims that Luxemburg “said,” in reference to her book The Russian Revolution, that “you could burn all that.” He supplies no source for this supposed quote. Can he please provide us with it? It is a very serious matter, I need not add, to attribute a statement—in quotation marks no less!—to someone when there is no historical evidence that it was ever made. In fact, it has been clearly and widely documented for at least two decades that Luxemburg explicitly insisted in a series of three letters written to her Polish party comrades, only weeks before her death, that the text of The Russian Revolution be published as soon as possible. In none of these letters does she take back her criticisms of the Bolsheviks. The three letters makes it crystal clear that the later claims by Clara Zetlin and Adolf Warski (under pressure from Moscow) that she did not want The Russian Revolution published because she had supposedly “changed her mind” about her critique of the Bolshevsiks was completely wrong. I referred to these letters in my Introduction to The Rosa Luxemburg Reader back in 2004 (see p. 399); Kevin Anderson had also cited them in his Lenin and Western Marxism a decade earlier (see p. 278). So why the attribution to Luxemburg of views she never held when there is ample documentary evidence of her actual statements? If Chris or anyone else wants to see the originals they can easily read them by consulting “Drei unbekannte Briefe Rosa Luxemburg über die Oktober-revolution,” by Feliks Tych, in IWK Internationale wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zür Geschichte der deutsche Arbeiterwegung, 27:3 (1991), pp. 357-66.

Fourth, while it is true that Luxemburg and Lenin worked very closely together after the 1905 Revolution, it is not true that she had only “a very brief disagreement” with the Bolsheviks in 1912 over declaring themselves the equivalent of RSDLP. They had numerous other disputes between 1909 and 1914 (far too numerous to be listed here), especially concerning the national question (on that one Lenin was right) and on his organizational authoritarianism (on which Luxemburg was right). As she wrote in 1911, “Already in 1903, shortly after the constitution of the two factional wings in the Russian Party, we felt obliged to stand up decisively against the organizational centralism of Lenin and his friends, because they wanted to secure a revolutionary direction for the proletarian movement by swaddling the party, in a purely mechanistic fashion, with an intellectual dictator from the central party Executive.”

Of course, Luxemburg’s critiques of Lenin did not mean she did not respect and value him—something that surely never the case when it came to her critiques of reformists like Bernstein (and later Kautsky). All of this of course makes the comments of Principia even more ahistorical, and frankly, ridiculous, than Chris’. Even when they disagreed most sharply, as in 1911-12, Luxemburg welcomed Lenin to stay at her place in Berlin and had extensive, comradely discussions with him. The same was true after her sharp critique of Lenin over his repression of democracy after 1918; one of her very last letters was written to Lenin, and concluded with the words “All the best! For now many handshakes and greetings” (see The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, p. 486).

The notion that political disagreement means that different tendencies cannot work together and forge comradely relations–so long as they are at one when it comes to the issue of social revolution against capitalism–was largely alien to Lenin and Luxemburg’s generation. This proclivity to confuse principled political disagreements with name calling and deriding the humanity of individuals (as in “those I disagree with are ‘donkeys’”) is part and parcel of the legacy of Stalinism. One would hope that anti-Stalinist revolutionaries would have outgrown that by now.

Sadly, it appears that historical accuracy tends to get in the way of the blinders of ideologues, whether they happen or worship or condemn Lenin. As one who falls into neither camp, I think it is best to approach these issues, as Sojourner Truth once said, “from a different field.”

  1. COMMENT by Chris Cutrone August 18, 2011

@Peter:  I was unaware of Luxemburg’s letter to her Polish comrades requesting publication of The Russian Revolution pamphlet. I was also unaware of the prior English publication of “The Russian Tragedy.”

That said, I do think Luxemburg changed her mind, not completely, but crucially with respect to the Constituent Assembly, around which some, but certainly not all, of Luxemburg’s critiques of the Bolsheviks actions after the October Revolution were centered.

About the attribution to Luxemburg herself of the ” you can burn that” statement, I thought it was in the unabridged J.P. Nettl biography but I couldn’t find the reference. It’s possible it’s either from another source or that I had misremembered this, confusing with with Jogiches cited by Ettinger. In any case, I’ll retract that and admit my possible mistake on that for now.

The issue I would take is with respect to either/or or for/against black-and-white thinking with respect to these (Luxemburg and Lenin, among other) thinkers.

So, when I said that Luxemburg “changed her mind” I didn’t mean that she became uncritical of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but here criticisms did change or were modified.

I largely agree with Luxemburg’s criticism and caveats with respect ot Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But I don’t think they were static propositions, and need to be understood within the very complex and rich historical context that can be difficult to reconstruct accurately. Also, there is much room for differences of interpretation, not settled by simple reference to the “facts.”

  1. COMMENT by PD office teaboy August 18, 2011

Peter Hudis thinks we are inhumane in calling people donkeys! He should hear what the editor calls us when I make the coffee too weak

  1. COMMENT by Chris Cutrone August 19, 2011

@Peter: I wonder also about the lack of inclusion/mention of 2 other writings by Luxemburg that pertain to her relationship to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, most positively: her defense of Lenin in “Blanquism and Social Democracy” (1906) (http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/06/blanquism.html), and her article titled “German Bolshevism” about the Spartacus program for the socialization of society in 1918 (http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/20.htm#n1). Will these be included in the collected writings of Luxemburg you are editing for Verso?

  1. COMMENT by Peter Hudis August 20, 2011

Thanks for the response, Chris. I agree with you that differences of interpretation cannot be settled by “simple reference to the ‘facts.’” But the facts do pre-determine the scope and horizon of possible viable interpretations. And there is one fact about “The Russian Tragedy” that I did not mention in my response that is rather important when it comes to the question of whether it reflected a re-thinking on Luxemburg’s part about her critique of Lenin and Trotsky in “The Russian Revolution.”

This is that “The Russian Tragedy” was actually written before, and not after, the text of “The Russian Revolution.” The former was composed in the summer of 1918 and published as the FIRST in an intended series of articles in Spartakusbriefe on the events in Russia. Paul Levi convinced her not to submit the subsequent articles because he thought, at the time, that her critique of the Bolsheviks, especially regarding her concern that they were considering an alliance with German imperialism, took matters too far. Luxemburg agree not to publish the planned follow-through articles to “The Russian Tragedy” but instead to compose a separate and much more detailed booklet on the subject, which became “The Russian Revolution,” completed in the Fall of 1918.

You will notice that despite her sharp critiques of the Bolsheviks in “The Russian Revolution,” it does not contain her earlier accusation in “The Russian Tragedy” that they are preparing an alliance with German imperialism. So rather than “The Russian Tragedy” modifying her critique in “The Russian Revolution,” it was “The Russian Revolution” that on at least one major issue modified her critique in “The Russian Tragedy.”

At the same time, “The Russian Revolution” contains a full-blown critique of the Bolshevik’s suppression of democracy (as well as a critique of them on other issues) that is not found in “The Russian Tragedy.” That was in accordance with her plan to flesh out her critique of the internal policy of the Bolsheviks more fully after having written “The Russian Tragedy.”

Attentiveness to historical detail therefore does pre-determine the scope of possible interpretations on this rather contentious issue.

  1. COMMENT by Peter Hudis August 21, 2011

The “Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg” will contain EVERYTHING Luxemburg ever wrote, in 14 volumes, including the two relatively well known pieces that Chris mentions. I should add that the second piece appeared under a number of titles and was not actually entitled by her “German Bolshevism.” It has already appeared in book form, in 2004, in “The Rosa Luxemburg Reader,” as “The Socialization of Society.” The piece does not discuss either Bolshevism or the Russian Revolution itself. For those interested in a paper I gave (at a conference in China) on this important essay, you can contact me directly for a copy.

  1. COMMENT by negative potential August 21, 2011

That sounds rather more complete than the merely 5-volume Rosa Luxemburg works available in German from Dietz Verlag. Even accounting for the additional 5 volumes of letters also available from Dietz, that yields a mere 10 volumes in German.

So I assume the English version will contain work not available in the German collection(s)? I know that her Polish-language work on the national question was not incorporated into the original Dietz volumes, an error that was also not corrected after 1989.

  1. COMMENT by Peter Hudis August 22, 2011

You are correct that the English Complete Works will be much more comprehensive than the 5-volume Gesammelte Werke. For instance, there is something in the order of 3,000 pages of material by Luxemburg in Polish that did not appear in the GW. The next volume in the Complete Works series, “Economic Writings 1897-1907,” will contain a number of pieces by her discovered only in the past few decades that have not yet been published at all.

  1. COMMENT by Chris Cutrone August 22, 2011

@Peter:  Whether (or not) Luxemburg wrote “The Russian Tragedy” after (or before) The Russian Revolution pamphlet is beside the point. In any case, one was published in her lifetime while the other was not. And I think that says something.

The question, however, is actually whether Luxemburg changed her mind about the Bolsheviks (and Left SRs) dispersing the Constituent Assembly, and how much this was involved in Luxemburg’s criticisms of supposed Bolshevik undemocratic behavior in the Russian revolution, which are not mentioned in “The Russian Tragedy.” It seems that you, Peter, are saying that Luxemburg may have changed her mind not about the “democratic” criticism of the Bolsheviks, but with respect to the separate peace with Germany. I think that it is the reverse. Luxemburg was demonstrably at least as hostile to the pseudo-democratism of Germany’s “liberation” of Eastern Europe from the Russians in WWI and its aftermath as she could be inferred to have been committed to democracy *against* the Bolsheviks. The question is why Lenin thought that he and Luxemburg agreed on all the major issues — and why Luxemburg, according to the textual evidence, also appears to have thought she had more in common than at odds with the Bolsheviks.

It’s the silent elisions that are bothersome. In other words, the tactic acceptance of the Cold War-era idea, conditioned by the experience of Stalinism (and very prevalent on this site!) that Lenin was less democratically inclined than Luxemburg. I think there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

  1. COMMENT by The Wolfman August 26, 2011

Victor Serge: The Carnets of 1944
15 January 1944

“Short affectionate letter from Natalia, in reply to my New Year good wishes … It was very galling to think that sectarianism came so completely between us, sole survivors of the Russian Revolution here and perhaps in the world. And it wasn’t in the human spirit of the true Bolsheviks. Great joy for me in these few lines in a shaking hand, in the same blue ink as the Old Man’s, in the stumbling lines like Natalie’s step in her garden which is a tomb. Painful to think that the book we’ve just published, M.P., J.G. and I. with J.G.’s weak pages on Bolshevism and Trotskyism which he couldn’t understand, will be galling to Natalie and that perhaps she won’t take account of my isolation in that joint authorship. There’s no longer anyone who knows what the Russian revolution was really like, what the Bolsheviks were like – and people judge without knowing, with bitterness with primary inflexibility.”

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3 Comments

  1. Karel Ludenhoff

    As to comments 12 and 13 in which 10 volumes of the Works of Rosa Luxemburg in the German edition are discussed: Although the “Gesammelte Werke” [Collected Works] is 5 volumes, the actual number of books is 6, because volume 1 comprises 2 physical books. The number of volumes in the “Gesammelte Briefe” [Collected Letters] is 6. So the total is 12 books. There are, however, 2 volumes in preparation for the Gesammelte Werke: Vol. 6, edited by A. Laschitza, and Vol. 7, edited by H. Politt. Vol. 7 will contain the Polish Works.

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  2. Chris Cutrone

    Addendum: From J.P. Nettl’s two-volume biography of Luxemburg (1966):

    The . . . items in [Luxemburg’s] The Russian Revolution [that] dealt with Bolshevik policy with regard to the Constituent Assembly and suffrage . . . criticized the Bolsheviks’ action in dispersing the Constituent Assembly, which they themselves had called, and in restricting the suffrage. The details were not important, and these — but only these — she later retracted. . . . She was wrong in supposing that a kind of mass pressure on a Constituent Assembly in Russia, moving it forward and keeping it Socialist, was available; quite the contrary. (700–701) . . .
    Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian Revolution has become famous as an almost clairvoyant indictment of the Bolsheviks. In part this is justified. But its purpose will be better served if we see it as an analysis of ideal revolution based, like so much of Rosa Luxemburg’s work, on a form of critical dialogue, in this base with the Bolshevik October Revolution. Those who are made joyful by criticism of the fundamentals of the Bolshevik revolution would do better to turn elsewhere. (704–705) . . .
    Any search of Rosa’s writings for specific approval or disapproval of the Russian example . . . is based on a misunderstanding of her attitude and her situation. . . . [Luxemburg wrote:] “If our party is full of enthusiasm for Bolshevism . . . then it is no more than enthusiasm coupled with the spirit of criticism — what more can people want from us?” (716) . . .
    Possibly the only factual error to which [Luxemburg] ever admitted was her support for a Constituent Assembly in Russia at the beginning of 1918. For the rest, she had always insisted that the problem of terror and the suppression of democracy were phenomena of isolation, and a world-wide, or at least European, revolution would do away with them. But they were no less reprehensible for being temporary.
    In any case, all the evidence shows that she was willing and anxious to collaborate with the Russians, to learn from their experience, and to agitate as strongly as possible for a link between revolutionary Russia and revolutionary Germany. . . . But this did not imply any admission of Russian precedence, or the subordination of German tactics to the dictates of Moscow. . . . [T]his problem simply did not exist. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were willing to admit, if not the primacy of the German revolution over the Russian — though there is some evidence of this — at least the critical importance to the Soviet Union of Communist success in Germany. The Bolsheviks were prepared to make real sacrifices for this. . . . Rosa was the last to prefer abstract criticisms of other people’s activities [which] was [Karl] Kautsky’s specialty. (718–719)

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  3. Chris Cutrone

    In the words of Luxemburg’s own pamphlet The Russian Revolution (1918):

    All of us are subject to the laws of history. . . . The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of historical possibilities. . . . What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescencies in the politics of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!” This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. . . . And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism.”

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