Tony Cliff

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg’s place in history

Franz Mehring, the biographer of Marx, did not exaggerate when he called Rosa Luxemburg the best brain after Marx. But she did not contribute her brain alone to the working-class movement; she gave everything she had – her heart, her passion, her strong will, her very life.

Above all else, Rosa Luxemburg was a revolutionary socialist. And among the great revolutionary socialist leaders and teachers she has a special historical place of her own.

When reformism degraded the socialist movements by aspiring purely for the “welfare state”, by tinkering with capitalism, it became of first importance to make a revolutionary criticism of this handmaiden of capitalism. It is true that other Marxist teachers besides Rosa Luxemburg – Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and others – conducted a revolutionary fight against reformism. But they had a limited front to fight against. In their country, Russia, the roots of this weed were so weak and thin that a mere tug was sufficient to uproot it. Where Siberia or the gallows stared every socialist or democrat in the face, who in principle could oppose the use of violence by the labour movement? Who in Tsarist Russia would have dreamed of a parliamentary road to socialism? Who could advocate a policy of coalition government, for with whom could coalitions be made? Where trade unions scarcely existed, who could think of considering them the panacea of the labour movement? Lenin, Trotsky and the other Russian Bolshevik leaders did not need to counter the arguments of reformism with a painstaking and exact analysis. All they needed was a broom to sweep it away to the dungheap of history.

In Central and Western Europe conservative reformism had much deeper roots, a much more embracing influence on the thoughts and moods of the workers. The arguments of the reformists had to be answered by superior ones, and here Rosa Luxemburg excelled. In these countries her scalpel is a much more useful weapon than Lenin’s sledgehammer.

In Tsarist Russia the mass of the workers were not organised in parties or trade unions. There there was not such a threat of powerful empires being built by a bureaucracy rising from the working class as in the well-organised workers’ movement of Germany; and it was natural that Rosa Luxemburg had a much earlier and clearer view of the role of the labour bureaucracy than Lenin or Trotsky. She understood long before they did that the only power that could break through bureaucratic chains is the initiative of the workers. Her writings on this subject can serve as an inspiration to workers in the advanced industrial countries, and are a more valuable contribution to the struggle to liberate the workers from the pernicious ideology of bourgeois reformism than those of any other Marxist.

In Russia, where the Bolsheviks were always a large and important part of the organised socialists, even if they were not always the majority, as their name signifies, the question of the attitude of a small Marxist minority to a mass, conservatively-led organisation never really rose as a problem. It remained for Rosa Luxemburg largely to develop the right approach to this vital question. Her guiding principle was: stay with the masses throughout their travail and try to help them. She therefore opposed abstention from the main stream of the labour movement, no matter what the level of its development. Her fight against sectarianism is extremely important for the labour movement of the West, especially at present, when welfare-stateism is such an all-pervading sentiment. The British labour movement, in particular, having suffered from the sectarianism of Hyndman and the SDF, later the BSP and SLP, then the Communist Party (especially in its “third period”) and now further sects, can gain inspiration from Rosa Luxemburg for a principled fight against reformism which does not degenerate into flight from it. She taught that a revolutionary should not swim with the stream of reformism, nor sit outside it and look in the opposite direction, but swim against it.

Rosa Luxemburg’s conception of the structure of the revolutionary organisations – that they should be built, from below up, on a consistently democratic basis – fits the needs of the workers’ movement in the advanced countries much more closely than Lenin’s conception of 1902-04 which was copied and given an added bureaucratic twist by the Stalinists the world over.

She understood more clearly than anyone that the structure of the revolutionary party, and the mutual relation between the party and the class, would have a big influence, not only on the struggle against capitalism and for workers’ power, but also on the fate of this power itself. She stated prophetically that without the widest workers’ democracy “officials behind their desks” would replace the workers’ hold on political power. “Socialism”, she said, “cannot be decreed or introduced by edict.”

Rosa Luxemburg’s blend of revolutionary spirit and clear understanding of the nature of the labour movement in Western and Central Europe is in some way connected with her particular background of birth in the Tsarist Empire, long residence in Germany, and full activity in both the Polish and German labour movements. Anyone of smaller stature would have been assimilated into one of the two environments, but not Rosa Luxemburg. To Germany she brought the “Russian” spirit, the spirit of revolutionary action. To Poland and Russia she brought the “Western” spirit of workers’ self-reliance, democracy and self-emancipation.

Her The Accumulation of Capital is an invaluable contribution to Marxism. In dealing with the mutual relations between the industrially advanced countries and the backward agrarian ones she brought out the most important idea that imperialism, while stabilising capitalism over a long period, at the same time threatens to bury humanity under its ruins.

Being vital, energetic and non-fatalistic in her approach to history, which she conceived of as the fruit of human activity, and at the same time laying bare the deep contradictions of capitalism, Rosa Luxemburg did not consider that the victory of socialism was inevitable. Capitalism, she thought, could be either the ante-chamber to socialism or the brink of barbarism. We who live in the shadow of the H-bomb must comprehend this warning and use it as a spur to action.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the German labour movement, with decades of peace behind it, sank under the illusion that this situation was everlasting. We who are in the throes of discussion about controlled disarmament, United Nations, Summit Meetings, could do no better than learn from Rosa Luxemburg’s clear analysis of the unbreakable tie between war and capitalism, and her insistence that the fight for peace is inseparable from the fight for socialism.

A passion for truth made Rosa Luxemburg recoil from any dogmatic thought. In a period when Stalinism has largely turned Marxism into a dogma, spreading desolation in the field of ideas, Rosa Luxemburg’s writings are invigorating and life-giving. Nothing was more intolerable to her than bowing down to “infallible authorities”. As a real disciple of Marx she was able to think and act independently of her master. Though grasping the spirit of his teaching, she did not lose her critical faculties in a simple repetition of his words, whether these fitted the changed situation or not, whether they were right or wrong. Rosa Luxemburg’s independence of thought is the greatest inspiration to socialists everywhere and always. In consequence, no one would have denounced more forcefully than she herself any effort to canonise her, to turn her into an “infallible authority”, a leader of a school of thought or action. She loved the conflict of ideas as a means of coming nearer to the truth.

During a period when so many who consider themselves Marxists sap Marxism of its deep humanistic content, no one can do more to release us from the chains of lifeless mechanistic materialism than Rosa Luxemburg. For Marx communism (or socialism) was “real humanism”, “a society in which the full and free development of every individual is the ruling principle”. [96] Rosa Luxemburg was the embodiment of these humanistic passions. Sympathy with the lowly and oppressed was a central motive of her life. Her deep emotion and feeling for the suffering of people and all living things expressed themselves in everything she did or wrote, whether in her letters from prison or in the deepest writings of her theoretical research.

Rosa Luxemburg, however, well knew that where human tragedy is on an epic scale tears won’t help. Her motto, like that of Spinoza, might have been, “Do not cry, do not laugh, but understand”, even though she herself had her full share of tears and laughter. Her method was to reveal the trends of development in social life in order to help the working class to use its potentialities in the best possible way in conjunction with objective development. She appealed to man’s reason rather than to emotion.

Deep human sympathy and an earnest desire for truth, unbounded courage and a magnificent brain united in Rosa Luxemburg to make her a great revolutionary socialist. As her closest friend, Clara Zetkin, wrote in her obituary:

In Rosa Luxemburg the socialist idea was a dominating and powerful passion of both heart and brain, a truly creative passion which burned ceaselessly. The great task and the overpowering ambition of this astonishing woman was to prepare the way for social revolution, to clear the path of history for Socialism. To experience the revolution, to fight its battles – that was the highest happiness for her. With a will, determination, selflessness and devotion for which words are too weak, she consecrated her whole life and her whole being to Socialism. She gave herself completely to the cause of Socialism, not only in her tragic death, but throughout her whole life, daily and hourly, through the struggles of many years ... She was the sharp sword, the living flame of revolution.



96. K. Marx, Capital, vol.I, p.649.


Last updated on 20.4.2003