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Rosa Luxemburg and the revolutionary party revisited

February 13, 2018

Part 2 of ‘Rosa Luxemburg and Polish socialism (1893-1919)’

Rosa Luxemburg picBy Eric Blanc. The following text is an edited excerpt from ‘The Rosa Luxemburg Myth: A Critique of Luxemburg’s Politics in Poland (1893–1919)’, published in Historical Materialism (2018, 26, 1: 1-34.) Click here for subscriptions to Historical Materialism. See also “Part 1: Rosa Luxemburg’s Bloc with the SPD Bureaucracy.”

This article re-examines Rosa Luxemburg’s approach to the party question by analysing the overlooked experience of her political intervention and organisation in Poland. In particular, I challenge the myth that Rosa Luxemburg advocated a ‘party of the whole class’, ‘spontaneism’ or consistent party democracy. The perspectives and practices of her party – the  Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) – demonstrate that there were no steady strategic differences between Luxemburg and V.I. Lenin on the role of a revolutionary party. In practice, the most consequential divergence between their parties was that the Bolsheviks, unlike the SDKPiL, became more effective in mass workers’ struggles during and following the 1905 revolution.

The party and spontaneity

One of the most important political strengths of Luxemburg and her party was undoubtedly their emphasis on working-class action. It was largely due to the SDKPiL’s tireless agitation among working people that it gained a popular base during 1905–6. Moreover, Luxemburg’s famous 1906 pamphlet on the mass strike posed a clear alternative to European Social Democracy’s prevailing prioritisation of organisation and education over action. Arguing that the 1905 revolution pointed the way forward for the workers’ movement across Europe and the world, Luxemburg articulated three inter-related theses:

  1. The working-class majority would storm the political arena before being fully organised and educated by the Social Democracy (i.e., ‘spontaneously’).
  2. Most workers would come to revolutionary conclusions not through party publications or speeches, but through their experience in these tumultuous political upheavals.
  3. Thus the main way for Marxist parties to effectively fight for workers’ power was to promote mass actions and – in the process of the struggle itself – to give them leadership and organisation.

Countless authors have problematically counterposed this strategy to the purported elitism of Lenin and his top-down vanguard party. Bruno Naarden thus argues that Luxemburg advocated a ‘theory of spontaneity’, whose ‘hallmark’ was a ‘glorification of the spontaneity of the masses’. This stance, the author claims, ‘proved how far removed she was’ from the Bolsheviks and how ‘her viewpoint was approaching that of anarchists and syndicalists’.[1]

This false dichotomy has been challenged by various academics and activists, who note Lenin’s shared enthusiasm for ‘spontaneous’ mass action and Luxemburg’s conviction that a revolutionary Marxist party was an indispensable vehicle to lead the insurgent masses to conquer power.[2] Indeed, the mass-action orientation implemented by the Bolsheviks in 1917 basically stood in continuity with the perspectives articulated by Luxemburg in 1906.

Party building in Tsarist Russia

Yet even authors who note Lenin and Luxemburg’s similarities generally maintain that before 1917 there were fundamental differences in their conception of the nature and role of the revolutionary party. Unlike Lenin, according to this analysis, Luxemburg remained wedded to the Second International’s view that the party should embrace the whole class (not just its vanguard) and that revolutionaries should not organise separately from reformist socialists. According to Chris Harman’s influential account, Luxemburg advocated a ‘party of the whole class’ model: ‘All the tendencies within the class had to be represented within it. Any split within it was to be conceived of as a split within the class. Centralisation, although recognised as necessary, was feared as a centralisation over and against the spontaneous activity of the class.’[3] In contrast with Lenin and his independent Bolshevik party, it is argued, Luxemburg refused to organisationally break from the reformists, hoping in vain that the impending revolutionary upsurge would overcome opportunism in the party and its leadership.[4]

While it is justified to criticise Luxemburg (and other SPD radicals) for failing to organise the SPD’s left wing as a distinct current before 1914, it does not follow that this error reflected a strategic divergence with Lenin on party-building. The basic flaw in such an interpretation is that it cannot account for the ‘Leninist’ nature of Luxemburg’s organisation in Poland. Indeed, the SDKPiL shared all of the attributes that are generally said to be the distinct features of Bolshevism: organisational separateness from reformists, political cohesiveness, and/or tight centralisation.

The fact that both Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s parties in Tsarist Russia looked very different from the German SPD was not caused by a break with ‘orthodox’ Marxism. Nobody in Tsarist Russia called for a ‘party of a new type’, for the simple reason that Social-Democratic ‘orthodoxy’ already proclaimed that the party should organise the most advanced layers of the class on the basis of a Marxist programme.[5] German Social Democracy’s descent into reformism was largely due to the emergence of a strata of conservative party functionaries during the SPD’s first decades of peaceful development. It is important to keep this insight in mind, as the party’s reformism is not infrequently blamed on Kautsky’s theories. Yet most SPD leaders, far from being followers of Kautsky, were bureaucratic ‘practicals’ uninterested in socialist theory.[6]  To see what a party led by ‘orthodox’ Social Democrats looked like in practice, one must examine the Tsarist empire, not Germany.

The obvious differences between socialist parties in Tsarist Russia and their counterparts across Europe were basically the result of the context of Russian absolutism.[7] Marxists agreed that conditions under Tsarism precluded any attempt to adopt the organisational structure – or the particular political focus – of the German SPD. And at no point in the prewar years did either Lenin or Luxemburg argue that their form of party organisation in the Tsarist empire should be replicated by revolutionaries in Germany or the rest of Europe.

Moreover, the absence of political freedom facilitated a completely different relationship of forces between reformists and revolutionaries inside the Russian empire’s socialist movement. In Russia, the existence of a feudal-absolutist state and the absence of political freedom mitigated against the growth of strong reformist tendencies or the emergence of bureaucratised labour apparatuses. As such, the challenging question – posed in Germany and across Western Europe – of how a revolutionary Marxist minority could effectively overcome the bureaucratised leadership of a mass socialist party was simply not posed under Tsarism. Of course, even within Luxemburg and Lenin’s shared ‘orthodox’ framework, all sorts of concrete differences over how best to politically proceed in the specific conditions of Tsarist Russia were inevitable. But examining the theory and practice of Luxemburg’s party in Poland demonstrates that her well-known debates with Lenin did not reflect any consistent divergences.

Leo Jogiches

Leo Jogiches

On the basis of her influential 1904 polemic against Lenin, Luxemburg is frequently upheld as a consistent promoter of party democracy against the supposedly ‘authoritarian’ Bolsheviks. Yet, in practice, the SDKPiL was certainly one of the least-democratic socialist parties in the whole Tsarist empire. Nettl notes that Luxemburg’s ‘own attitudes in the Polish party hardly bore out such demands for more “democracy”; instead of controlling local organizations, she simply ignored them altogether. Leo Jogiches, on the other hand, later tried to institute a system of control as tight as Lenin’s, even if he did not choose to expound a philosophy of centralization.’[8]

Particularly after 1905, repeated internal SDKPiL oppositions arose to challenge the party’s political line and internal functioning, only to be slandered, isolated, and/or expelled through organisational manoeuvres by the leadership. One particularly egregious method used by Luxemburg and her leadership was their repeated public disclosure of the real names of factional opponents who operated under pseudonyms, opening them up to state repression.[9] ‘The systematic recourse to defamation and intrigues had become a method to maintain power inside the SDKPiL’, notes Swiss historian Jean-François Fayet.[10]


Feliks Dzierżyński

The mass upsurge and relatively more free conditions opened by the 1905 revolution led most socialist parties in the Tsarist empire – including the Bolsheviks – to take significant steps towards internal democracy.[11] But the SDKPiL moved in the exact opposite direction. In 1906, the party rejected all motions by rank-and-file leaders to make concessions to democratic functioning, and instead deepened its centralising tendencies by adopting a new party structure that granted unprecedented powers to its five-man émigré leadership.[12] The SDKPiL was run in an increasingly dictatorial manner by Leo Jogiches and Feliks Dzierżyński – a dynamic that would have been unfeasible without Luxemburg’s consistent backing and ideological support.[13]

And while one can certainly find passages in Luxemburg’s German writings that downplay the distinction between the party and the class, or that argue against organisational splits from reformists, such ambiguities were not reflected in SDKPiL practice, nor were they the norm in her Polish writings. Consider, for example, Luxemburg’s justification for SDKPiL intransigence towards its main political rival, the Polish Socialist Party (PPS):

The fact is that the existence of a strictly class proletarian party – that bases its principles on a theoretical understanding of its activities, that knows no compromise on tactics, that is inflexible in the application and defence of the whole of its views, that is inaccessible to any half-bred and half-hearted shades of socialism – has an effect and impact far beyond its own organisation. It constantly weighs on the other factions and shades of socialism, and on the whole workers’ movement. How many charges were thrown against the ‘intransigent’ Guesde-ists in France for their decades-long rejection of unification with all other socialist groups! History proved them right – it was shown that the strength of a socialist party consists not in superficially cobbling together a plethora of members, nor in opulent cashboxes or an abundance of rubbish party leaflets, but rather in the stability and clarity of its views, in the concordance and spiritual unity of its ranks, in the concurrence between its words and deeds.[14]

So while Luxemburg advocated the organisational unity of Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, she at the same time rejected any organisational merger between the SDKPiL and the PPS-Left (the name taken by the PPS after it expelled its nationalist-separatist minority in 1906), despite the fact that the PPS-Left was consistently to the left of the Mensheviks. In fact, while Luxemburg’s party maintained a separate organisational structure for the whole pre-1917 period, the Bolsheviks were much less consistent. It was the Mensheviks, not the Bolsheviks, who had initiated the RSDRP split in 1903 by refusing to abide by the majority decisions of the Second Congress. In 1906 the two currents reunited. Even after the Bolsheviks began to de facto split away in 1912, they sought to include whole wings of Mensheviks inside their RSDRP, including even for a time those such as Giorgi Plekhanov who were openly committed to a strategic alliance between workers and the liberal bourgeoisie.

Assessing which political differences were permissible, and which tendencies could effectively co-exist, inside a Marxist party or fraction was a challenging question that no a priori formula could provide the concrete answers to. These complexities all too often get forgotten today, leading to an over-simplified understanding of the development of Bolshevism.

While many authors have claimed that the defining element of Bolshevik success in 1917 was its ‘Leninist’ organisational structure, the failure of Luxemburg’s party to lead the 1918–19 Polish revolution to victory would seem to demonstrate that the existence of a separate party of revolutionary Marxists was an insufficient condition for a working-class conquest of power. Luxemburg’s party lacked neither a separate structure, nor a homogenous commitment to revolutionary Marxism – but it proved unable to play a mass-leadership role analogous to the Bolsheviks, despite the favourable conditions for socialist revolution in postwar Poland.

Monopolism and the United Front

If the main political liability of the SDKPiL after 1914 was its continued opposition to Polish independence, in the preceding years its major strategic weakness was a general opposition to united-front mass organisations and united fronts in action with the PPS. Luxemburg and the SDKPiL sought to implement the model of ‘orthodox’ German Marxists, according to which working-class unity must be achieved directly through the party. In this conception, there should only be one workers’ party, to which all mass workers’ organisations (unions, etc.) should be politically and organisationally tied.

This orientation – which I will call ‘monopolism’ – was perhaps plausible in Germany, but it was problematic in places like Poland and central Russia where multiple relatively small socialist organisations existed. Here the dynamics of mass struggle necessitated unity in action between different political tendencies and required the formation of non-party mass organisations (factory committees, unions, workers’ councils) to coordinate actions and organise the wide strata of workers who did not belong to any parties.

In short, there was a major tension between Marxist ‘orthodoxy’ and the main forms of workers’ organisation that spread across the Tsarist empire during and following the 1905 revolution. ‘Monopolism’ was also initially strong among the Bolsheviks, resulting in their infamous calls for the 1905 St Petersburg soviet to follow the RSDRP’s leadership and adopt its programme. But they eventually proved able during late 1905, and particularly afterwards, to flexibly adjust their practices to the actual dynamics of mass struggle. Though the term ‘united front’ was not coined until after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks and many other Marxists had been practising this method for well over a decade.[15]

The contrast with Luxemburg’s party is striking. Poland, like the rest of the empire, witnessed a spontaneous push for unity by the insurgent working class in 1905. In addition to the formation of ad-hoc united committees in innumerable workplaces, Poland’s four socialist parties (the SDKPiL, PPS, Bund, and PPS-Proletariat) often began to jointly coordinate strikes, demonstrations and self-defence on a city-wide level. Yet time and time again the top SDKPiL leadership intervened to put an end to these united fronts, declaring that programmatic differences precluded coordination with the PPS.[16] To cite one of many examples: after the SDKPiL in Łódź reached an agreement in late 1905 to jointly organise an anti-government strike with the PPS (as it did not have the force to organise this on its own), the top party leadership intervened to annul the agreement, eventually leading top Łódź SDKPiL cadre to resign in protest at what they called the ‘bureaucratisation’ of their party.[17]

It would be hard to exaggerate just how damaging this lack of unity in action proved to be for the Polish revolution. Warsaw SDKPiL head Stanisław Gutt wrote in 1905 that ‘if the proletariat today falls in battle, moving in separate groups rather than as a compact batch, we will be to blame and we will in the future have to answer seriously to history.’[18]

On 27 December 1905, as the empire was engulfed in general strikes and insurrections, the PPS-Proletariat issued a call for Poland to follow the lead of central Russia by establishing workers’ councils (soviets), arguing that this was the only feasible way to successfully overcome the ‘tremendous damage’ done by the prevailing disunity in the Polish workers’ movement:

On the banners of all socialist parties is inscribed the slogan: ‘Proletarians of all countries unite!’ However, it is easy to write this slogan – but to achieve it is harder. … In [Tsarist] Poland there are as many as four different socialist organisations, and each cry: ‘Follow us, for only we can lead you to the Kingdom of Heaven’… [But] there is only one way to defeat the government: it is our solidarity and unity in action. … [To achieve this unity requires] a Council of Workers’ Deputies, which will include representatives from all factories, plants, and professions, and the representatives of all the socialist parties.’[19]

But this proposal – presaging Trotsky’s analysis of soviets as ‘the highest form of the united front’ – was denounced by the SDKPiL.[20] It issued a leaflet declaring that the call for councils in Poland ‘could only create confusion in the revolutionary ranks and harm the workers’ cause’. The purpose of the soviet in central Russia, the leaflet claimed, was not ‘to unite workers of different parties’, but rather to ‘link up the social-democratic party to the unconscious, dark, inert mass’. Councils could not ‘remedy the evil’ of the division of the Polish workers’ movement, because the proletariat ‘must have one programme and one class party’ and because ‘without a programme it is impossible to struggle against the Tsarist government or struggle against the capitalists’. Therefore, unity and victory could be achieved through explaining to the workers that only the SDKPiL represented their ‘real demands and interests’.[21]

The contradiction between ‘monopolism’ and the dynamics of mass struggle was no less evident in regard to labour unions. Poland witnessed an explosive growth of unions in 1905 and 1906 – over 20% of Polish workers became unionised in these years, by far the highest percentage in the whole empire. While the PPS promoted non-party unions open to all workers irrespective of their party affiliation, the SDKPiL instead organised their own separate social-democratic trade unions that were instructed not to cooperate with the other unions. These ‘party unions’ were organisationally tied to the SDKPiL, recognised its political leadership, and gave ten per cent of member-dues to the party. The results were predictably damaging, not only for the unity of the workers’ movement, but also for the influence of the SDKPiL, as their unions consistently represented far fewer workers than the non-partisan unions promoted by the PPS and later the PPS-Left.[22]


Rosa Luxemburg’s participation in Polish socialism was deeply contradictory and, in the end, tragic. Without her tremendous revolutionary prestige and political strengths it is unlikely that the sectarian SDKPiL could have ever played such an influential part in Polish and European history. The tragedy of Luxemburg and her Polish party was that their commitment to proletarian emancipation was undercut by sectarian and doctrinaire tendencies that contributed to the defeat of Poland’s workers’ revolutions in 1905 and 1918–19.[23] A serious balance-sheet of Luxemburg’s legacy cannot focus solely on her positive impact in Germany and beyond – it must also acknowledge her particularly problematic role in Poland.

See also


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[1] Naarden 1992, p. 144. Jack Conrad likewise writes that Luxemburg ‘adhered to a theory of spontaneity .… Because she tended to downplay organisation and over-emphasise spontaneity, Luxemburg was reluctant to establish a serious, disciplined, leftwing faction in the SDP before 1914. Unlike Lenin and the Bolsheviks, of course.’ (Conrad 2006, p. 22.)

[2] See, for instance, Harman 1968–9, p. 26.

[3] Harman 1968–9, p. 30.

[4] This case is made in Gluckstein 2014 and Rose 2015.

[5] Lih 2006.

[6] Kautsky thus argued in 1909 that the German party and union leaders ‘have been so absorbed by the administrative needs of the huge apparatus that they have lost every broad view, every interest for anything outside the affairs of their own offices’ (cited in Day and Gaido (eds.) 2009, p. 52).

[7] The one exception proves the rule: In Finland, the only region of the Tsarist empire with wide political freedom and a legalised socialist party, the Finnish Social-Democratic Party, shared the same organisational form and legalistic-parliamentary orientation as the German SPD.

[8] Nettl 1966, p. 288.

[9] For instance, this method was used against Kelles-Krauz in 1904 (Snyder 1997, pp. 184–5) and against Radek in 1912 (Nettl 1966, pp. 586–7).

[10] Fayet 2004, p. 113.

[11] Similarly, the Bolsheviks moved away from their earlier stress on tight party centralisation – from at least 1905 until the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik current’s organisational practices were significantly looser than the strict centralisation envisioned by Iskra during 1900–3.

[12] Blobaum 1984, pp. 34–5.

[13] Fayet 2004, Blobaum 1984, and Nettl 1966, passim.

[14] Luxemburg 1908a, p. 62.

[15] Consider, for example, Trotsky’s analysis of the Bolsheviks’ united-front tactics during 1917 (Trotsky 1932, pp. 76–83).

[16] Żarnowska 1965, pp. 162, 198, 243, 324.

[17] Michta 1987, pp. 142–3.

[18] Cited in Sobczak (ed.) 1988, p. 64.

[19] Odezwa Komitet Centralny Pol. Par. Soc. ‘Proletaryat’, Warszawa, 27 Grudnia 1905 r. (Dokumenty życia społecznego, Biblioteka Narodowa).

[20] ‘Just as the trade union is the rudimentary form of the united front in the economic struggle, so the soviet is the highest form of the united front under the conditions in which the proletariat enters the epoch of fighting for power.’ (Trotsky 1932, p. 91.)

[21] Odezwa Komitet Warszawski Socjaldemokracji Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy, Warszawa, 12 Lutego 1906 (Dokumenty życia społecznego, Biblioteka Narodowa). Contrary to this leaflet’s assertion, the soviets in St Petersburg and beyond did unite different socialist parties (the various wings of the RSDRP, the Socialist Revolutionaries, non-Russian Marxists, etc.). After the 1917 revolution, both Luxemburg and the SDKPiL came out in support of workers’ councils, but it was not until 1922–3 that the Polish Communist party adopted the theory and practice of the workers’ united front.

[22] Kochański and Orzechowski 1964.

[23] The 1918-19 revolution in Poland will be discussed in the final instalment of this series.

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