Luxemburg, Müller and the Berlin workers’ and soldiers’ councils

Issue: 147

John Rose

Two very important new books about the German Revolution were published last year: Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement by Ralf Hoffrogge and The German Left and the Weimar Republic: A Selection of Documents, translated and introduced by Ben Fowkes.1

As his title suggests, Hoffrogge’s book is more than just a ­political biography of Richard Müller, leader of the Berlin Revolutionary Shop Stewards. It can legitimately claim to add a fresh dimension to our understanding of the German Revolution with its focus on the hitherto underexplored core revolutionary leadership of the working class in Berlin.

The focus here is deliberately narrowed to just two months, November and December 1918, arguably the highest point of the German Revolution:

Richard Müller became chairman of the Executive Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, the revolutionary councils’ highest organ. This effectively made him the head of state of the Socialist Republic of Germany in November and December 1918. This short-lived socialist state has today been forgotten, lumped together with the ill-fated Weimar Republic that replaced it.2

Missing from the pages covering this period, though, is Rosa Luxemburg, the revolution’s most talented leader. She is quite simply not mentioned, apart for one telling remark.3 Müller later praised Luxemburg as “the clearest and boldest mind” of the revolution.4 But did she make such little impact in those two months that her intervention could go unnoticed?5 Does this omission signal a more complex politics that needs to be unravelled?

The absence of Luxemburg contrasts with the attention Hoffrogge draws both to Karl Liebknecht, Luxemburg’s closest collaborator, and to the Spartacist6 organisation that they jointly led, during these two months.

But before pursuing this further, Hoffrogge (and Müller) must set the scene for us. At the first administrators’ meeting of the local Berlin metal workers’ union (DMV) after the war began, Richard Müller, section leader of the Berlin lathe operators, declared resistance to the Burgfrieden,7 the political truce between the social democrats8 and the government. The dramatic arrest of Karl Liebknecht in his soldier’s uniform after he condemned the war on May Day 1916 provoked Germany’s first wartime political mass strike.9 Following demonstrations called by the Spartacists to coincide with Liebknecht’s trial, 55,000 Berlin workers responded to the strike called by Richard Müller and other shop stewards. Rosa Luxemburg was also arrested.

The strike was broken but the workers action reflected a wider changing mood towards the war which split the SPD, leading to the foundation of the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). Famous names associated with the 1914 “Great Betrayal” including Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein and Rudolf Hilferding joined it, as did the Berlin shop stewards and the Spartacists. A second mass strike, the April 1917 “Bread Strike” in response to wartime food shortages, involved two to three hundred thousand workers, far surpassing the 1916 action. Finally a third mass strike at the beginning of 1918 was effectively a curtain raiser for the German Revolution itself:

On the morning of 28 January 1918, the lathe operators and Shop Stewards signalled the beginning of [a new] strike by striking the oxygen tanks used for welding with hammers. Within a few hours Berlin’s entire armament industry came to a standstill. By the afternoon of the first day 414 delegates representing 400,000 workers gathered for a meeting in the Berlin union hall. Richard Müller led the assembly and received their demands…peace without annexations…democratisation of the entire state apparatus.10

An Action Committee was elected which included Clare Casper, its only woman member, itself a revolutionary breakthrough.

The German Revolution in Berlin: 1918

“The German Revolution in Berlin: 1918” is the title of Hoffrogge’s fifth chapter describing the outbreak of the revolution in November 1918. It opens with an analysis, “A Tale of Two Styles”,11 of the two organised revolutionary forces, the Berlin Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Spartacists, that both collaborate and compete as the revolution unfolds.

The revolution began in November because the German war machine was crashing. The German High Command scrambled to make new friends—especially the leadership of the SPD, promising “democracy”. They even released Karl Liebknecht who was greeted by thousands of triumphant workers in Berlin on 23 October. Hoffrogge’s only mention of Luxemburg is now, “though unlike Liebknecht she had never been legally convicted, it appeared that the military leadership feared her influence more given that she, not Liebknecht, was the Spartacists’ intellectual leader”.12 She was finally released in November.

Liebknecht and other Spartacists now began attending secret meetings with the Berlin Shop Stewards. Though the revolution would break out spontaneously and hence unexpectedly with the sailors’ mutinies at the end of October,13 these meetings planned the organised uprising in Berlin. Yet the tension between the two sides was appalling:

Müller later recalled that Liebknecht did not see the group as an association of committed revolutionaries. At most he thought of it as a club of feral bourgeois philistines who met in secret and never informed the world of their existence. Such choice left invective may have been attributed to Liebknecht by Müller but the former certainly had long failed to comprehend the Shop Stewards’ secret and unassuming style, born of legitimate caution and down-to-earth assessment of possibilities.14

Müller was also capable of destructive polemics, accusing Liebknecht of irresponsibly demanding non-stop street action that Müller and the other stewards famously ridiculed as “revolutionary gymnastics”.15

Hoffrogge offers his own assessment:

It was certainly true that until then the Shop Stewards kept a low public profile. Unlike the parties or the Spartacus League, they conducted their propaganda in workshops and expanded their network of representatives secretly. They did not organise demonstrations or other street propaganda. They were action-oriented and placed very little value on the kind of ideological propaganda or theoretical work that the Spartacists usually engaged in, let alone the sort of grand gestures so integral to Liebknecht’s style.

Hoffrogge continues:

Their forum was the factory and their form of political action was the general strike. Although they could lead hundreds of thousands of workers in a strike, the Stewards’ organisation and their mode of operation were known only to their members. It was only in December 1918, weeks after the Revolution, that the Shop Stewards met in public for the first time and issued a press statement under their own name…Revolutionary Shop Stewards.16

These passages are some of the most important in the book. This is surely more than a “tale of two styles”, but rather of inadequate politics on bothsides. A sharp theoretical argument was required, binding both sides together with an agreed political vision, strategy and tactics. And the person most likely to facilitate that was indeed missing: Rosa Luxemburg.

Meanwhile both sides were not only planning an insurrection but were in serious discussions about how it would be armed! Weapons were being purchased and later research proves that the stewards were secretly obtaining money from the Bolsheviks.17 Liebknecht and the shop stewards now argued furiously about the date. The stewards had a veto and Liebknecht could not shift them. However, the arrest of Ernst Däumig18—carrying the revolutionaries’ military plans in his brief case—forced their hand. They had to act immediately.

Müller later reminisced about watching the arrival in Berlin of “heavily armed infantry columns, machine gun companies, and light field artillery… They had…put down the Russian workers and farmers… I was seized by an oppressive feeling, a great worry for my class comrades… I felt shamefully small and weak. No infallible leader will show the proletariat the path to follow”.19 Again, Hoffrogge adds a footnote pointing out that the very last sentence was based on one of Rosa Luxemburg’s, first published in 1916 in her famous anti-war Junius pamphlet.20 This begs a number of questions. While it suggests that Müller was familiar with one of Luxemburg’s most famous pamphlets, at least when he wrote his memoir, its argument about leadership needs clarification at two connected levels.

Müller may not have been “infallible”, no leader is infallible, but he was certainly an extremely courageous and experienced one. He had led mass strikes against the war and helped plan workers’ council initiatives as well as the insurrection in Berlin: quite impressive for a fallible leader. Revolutions, once triggered, have a magnitude, a depth, a historical greatness about them, involving millions of ordinary people in mass activity, that can indeed dwarf the most experienced leader. Revolutions appear spontaneous, taking on a life of their own. But they do not remain directionless for very long. A vacuum opens up in terms of ideas, leadership and organisation. Unless revolutionaries consciously fill that vacuum, the ­counter-revolutionaries in their different ways, determined to restore the old order, will do so, masking themselves in revolutionary rhetoric and making minimalist concessions.

The truth is that Richard Müller and the Shop Stewards quite genuinely did not know how to fill that vacuum, as Müller would later admit. This contrasts sharply with Rosa Luxemburg who believed that she did have the adequate theoretical, ideological and organisational grasp to fill the leadership vacuum. But did she believe that the required revolutionary leadership would only develop once the revolution began or that it should be ­developed in advance?

Meanwhile, Hoffrogge continues:

Müller’s worries proved unfounded. As the workers left their factories on the morning of 9 November and streamed to the barracks in droves, hardly a soldier was prepared to fire on them. Spontaneous fraternisation followed and red flags waved over barracks in ministries. Philipp Scheidemann and Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a republic—one calling it the German Republic and the other the Socialist Republic of Germany. It remained to be seen over the following weeks which one the workers’ and soldiers’ councils would realise.21

Müller led a huge workers’ demonstration, also involving soldiers and sailors. They occupied the parliament, the Reichstag.22 Müller recorded, “parliamentarians…clearly alarmed by the invasion of the Reichstag by motley armed revolutionaries, ‘scurried away, white as sheets’”.23

Council power or parliamentary power?

The Kaiserreich lay in tatters on the first day of the Revolution, but a new state had yet to be constituted… Richard Müller…drafted a proposal for the election of workers’ and soldiers’ councils throughout Berlin and for a meeting of their representatives in the Cirkus Busch the following afternoon… For the moment the Shop Stewards had the initiative.24

However, “in a parallel development, negotiations between the USPD and SPD about the formation of a workers’ government based on parties rather than workers’ councils had begun in the back rooms of the Reichstag on the same day.” It would pretentiously call itself the Council of the People’s Deputies. The SPD leadership, “repelled by the very idea of revolution,” was trying to transform it “into a coalition of parties”.25

Müller and Liebknecht refused to support the council but they couldn’t ignore it. They pushed through an agreement that all executive, legislative and judicial power would be held by the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. “This…was designed to limit the power of the interim government and keep it from suffocating the revolution… How it would be subordinated to the workers’ councils remained to be seen”.26 There are parallels here with what Leon Trotsky called “dual power”, the emergence of soviets alongside a democratic Duma (parliament) after the February Revolution in Russia.27

The next few pages of Hoffrogge’s book make for sorry reading. We learn how Müller and the shop stewards were completely outmanoeuvred by the SPD in the preparations for the Cirkus Busch assembly. They didn’t have time to arrange proper workplace-based elections. It was Sunday and the workers were demonstrating on the streets:

However, the revolutionary but completely inexperienced soldiers were in the barracks and the majority Social Democrats knew it…the SPD printed thousands of leaflets and distributed them in military bases around Berlin… High ranking Social Democrats personally campaigned among soldiers and agitated to form soldiers’ councils under the leadership of SPD Reichstag members… By contrast, the USPD made no effort to influence the creation of councils… The Spartacus League, for its part, prepared only one leaflet… The group was simply “numerically too weak”.28

Thus the Cirkus Busch assembly would have 3,000 people with a majority of soldiers.29 It rejected a slate for the Action Committee composed exclusively of Spartacists and shop stewards—including Liebknecht and Luxemburg—with the Council of Peoples’ Deputies subordinated to it.30 Instead it proposed an Executive Council of Greater Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils with seven SPD representatives and seven USPD representatives as the highest organ of the revolution. Six of the USPD representatives were Revolutionary Stewards and the seventh was their supporter, Georg Ledebour. In addition, the council had 14 seats for ­soldiers’ delegates.

Although Richard Müller was voted its chairman a majority would always elude him and the USPD steward delegates because the soldiers usually sided with the SPD. Formally, “as co-chairman of the Executive Council who actually chaired its meetings, Richard Müller was now head of state under revolutionary law, given that the Executive Council, as the highest organ of Germany’s councils, controlled state power.” However, whenever Müller and the USPD grouping on the Executive Council tried to assert their authority against the Council of Peoples’ Deputies, “they were unable to reverse the loss of initiative they suffered at Cirkus Busch. It would prove fateful”.31

As Hoffrogge explains, “the Stewards’ lack of a coherent political vision and pressure from workers to restore unity with their former opponents in the SPD both contributed to paralysing the revolution at a very early stage”.32 Müller was also too cautious. He:

Shared the Social Democrats’ fear of economic collapse, energetically opposed so-called “wild socialisation”, and not only limited the power of workers’ councils to “audit” their employers but also failed to give them a means to actually implement even that limited power against the inevitable resistance…caution even led him to plead for the reintroduction of piecework at an AEG company meeting—an act that would cost him considerable rank and file support.33

But, as Hoffrogge notes, “wild socialisation”, workers taking control of their own workplaces, was “in fact quite sensible and accomplished by independent initiative”.34 “Wild socialisation” might have broken the paralysis at the top of the revolution with a fresh dynamic upsurge from rank and file workers below. It was a challenge to SPD leaders who, via the Council of the Peoples’ Deputies, were dangling the carrot of “legal” socialisation to be introduced by a “proper” national assembly.

Despite all this, Richard Müller and the Executive Council remained, implicitly and passively, a potent symbol of the revolution. A successful counter-revolution would have to destroy them.

“Talk of a coup was not far-fetched. On 6 December, a group of officers had tried to arrest the Executive Council and declare [Friedrich] Ebert president of the republic.” Coup propaganda stressed the “purity” and unity of the German people. Anti-Semitism lingered in the background. “Despite the reaction and dilettantism of the coup-makers, Ebert did not distance himself from them until it finally became apparent that the plan had collapsed”.35

Leichenmüller, Corpse Müller

Müller had “categorically rejected a demand for a national assembly at a Berlin council assembly on 19 November, declaring, ‘I have put my life on the line for the revolution and I will do it again. A national assembly is a path to bourgeois rule. The path to a national assembly will go over my dead body!’…While it made him a symbol of the council republicans, it also earned him the moniker Leichenmüller(Müller the corpse)”.36 It was a solitary gesture of defiance, prompted by desperation.37 Leichenmüller was in danger of becoming a figure of ridicule for the bourgeois and SPD press.

The ultimate test for the direction of the revolution would lie with the first national council congress of delegates from all the country’s workers’ and soldiers’ councils on 16 December. It was held in the Prussian state parliament building. Its agenda: the revolution’s future. Müller opened proceedings and “Däumig presented a declaration of principles for maintaining the council system as the structure of state”.38

But congress delegates disagreed. Despite supporting the socialisation of industry, they:

Were unwilling to make this task their own in the factories and workplaces, delegating it instead to the Government of People’s Deputies or the National Assembly. This expectation that the revolution would be executed from above by a benevolent government was the most fundamental obstacle that the German Revolution faced.39

The USPD Marxist economist Rudolf Hilferding argued at the Congress against workers taking over their factories because it would lead to “a series of factory associations” but “would not alter the character of ­capitalist society”—“Socialisation can only mean that the whole of production is transferred gradually to the community.” Successfully confusing the argument further by pointing to Russia, he boasted how his own arguments in the book Finance Capital were used by Lenin to take over the banks, but advised against this immediately in Germany because the banks would provide credit, needed to resuscitate industry: “Socialism is something more elevated than a movement for a pay increase. Socialism happens when a new spirit seizes hold of humanity…when the animal in us is replaced by the spiritual”.40

A resolution in line with Hilferding’s approach to gradual legal socialisation was passed unanimously with the person most able to challenge Hilferding politically, Rosa Luxemburg, deliberately excluded from the conference.41

An overwhelming majority of delegates voted for the national assembly. A fig leaf to the revolution was offered in the so called Hamburger Punkte, proposals from the Hamburg delegates that confirmed the soldiers’ councils’ position in the army and disempowered the officers. However, as Ben Fowkes ably demonstrates, the SPD had no difficulty in disposing of any residues of rank and file soldiers’ democracy in the army.42

The last word on the failure of the national congress must go to Richard Müller: “I had no idea that this congress was going to turn into a political suicide club”.43

Rosa Luxemburg and the German Revolution

Rosa Luxemburg was released from the city jail in Breslau the day the ­revolution erupted in Berlin, 9 November. She addressed “expectant crowds from the balcony of the old Rathaus where the judgements of the city elders had long ago been given to citizens”.44 Later that afternoon she rushed to Berlin by train where “she was greeted with joy by all her old friends, but with concealed sadness, for they suddenly realised what the years in prison had done for her. She had aged terribly and her black hair had gone quite white. She was a sick woman”.45

According to Paul Frölich, Luxemburg’s best known biographer and leading Spartacist, she might have been sick, “but her eyes shone with the old fire and energy. Although she urgently needed rest and recuperation, there was no rest for her. Two months were left of her life, and they were filled…with almost superhuman effort. Without a thought for her own health or safety, she strained every effort physically and mentally”.46

Before discussing Luxemburg’s intervention in the revolution, we should address a question that haunts historians to this day: her attitude to the Russian Revolution. It was almost exactly one year older than the German Revolution. But was its message positive or negative? How did it influence the unfolding of the German Revolution? Confusion persists because of Luxemburg’s manuscript, highly critical of the Russian Revolution—including its so called “red terror”, written in prison before her release. But an incisive letter from Luxemburg to Adolf Warski, leader of her party in Poland, written at the end of November or early December 1918, clarifies her position:

I too shared all your reservations…but have dropped them on the most important questions… Terror indicates great weakness, certainly, but it is directed against internal enemies, who base their hopes on the existence of capitalism outside of Russia, receiving support and encouragement from it. With the coming of the European Revolution, the Russian counter-revolutionaries will lose not only support, but also—what’s more important—their courage. Bolshevik terror is above all an expression of the weakness of the European proletariat. Certainly, the agrarian relations that have been established are the most dangerous aspect…of the Russian revolution. But here too…a truth applies—even the greatest revolution can accomplish only that which has ripened as a result of (historical) development. This sore…can only be healed through the European Revolution.47

In fact the Russian Revolution manuscript itself provides an even more powerful endorsement of the Bolsheviks. In its conclusion, Luxemburg writes: “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 who can cry…‘I have dared!’ This is the essential and enduring Bolshevik policy”.48

Yet Luxemburg did not approve of the Bolshevik party organisation. Several paragraphs later Broué somewhat confuses the argument by claiming that it was, after all, her “reservations about the policies of the Bolsheviks” in 1918 that inhibited Luxemburg and the other Spartacist leaders from adopting the Bolshevik model.49

But Luxemburg’s objections had far deeper roots. A battle of wits had taken place between Lenin and Luxemburg for years over this question. Lenin was always cautious about a head-on collision with Luxemburg for whom he had the deepest admiration.50 Nevertheless, he thought she and her supporters were fundamentally mistaken not to have broken openly and decisively, organisationally as well as politically,51with Kautsky in particular and the SPD in general at the outbreak of the First World War. This was the basis of Lenin’s criticism of Luxemburg’s Juniuspamphlet.52 It was the driver for his own furious pamphlet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.53 Astonishingly, Lenin wrote this in 1918 as the crisis in the Russian Revolution was deepening by the day if not the hour. But the pamphlet was the perfect dialectical compliment to Luxemburg’s own immediate grasp of the urgency of the situation: only the German Revolution can rescue the Russian Revolution. Yes, Lenin is saying, but it won’t if you remain in the same organisation as traitors like Kautsky.54 Lenin’s implicit warning is to the Spartacists staying with Kautsky and the USPD after its break with the SPD.

Rosa Luxemburg’s intervention in the German Revolution as editor of Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the Spartacus League paper, to be discussed shortly, also raises this question. There seems to have been no vigorous and ­persistent defence of the Bolsheviks in the pages of the paper: not even in the internationalist section of the programme of the Spartacists, “What Does the Spartacus League Want?” published in Rote Fahne in December 1918.55 Distinguishing her position from Kautsky was essential. Both looked at the soviets in Russia in 1918 and disapproved of one-party rule, the withering of soviet democracy and the “red terror”. Kautsky said this is what happens to workers councils, only parliament provides true democracy, the proper outcome for the German Revolution. Luxemburg drew the opposite conclusion. Only once real power is seized by the workers councils will true democracy find expression in Germany, as it also helps restore democracy to the workers councils in Russia. The ideological struggle over the interpretation of the Russian Revolution was surely a central aspect of the struggle between revolutionaries and reformists for the direction of the German Revolution.56

Meanwhile, when Rosa Luxemburg arrived in Berlin on Friday 9 November she went straight to the offices of the newspaper Berliner Lokalanzeigerwhich had just been occupied by Liebknecht and a group of Spartacists. They were demanding that the newspaper office be turned over to the revolution and publish Die Rote Fahne. But both management and printers were refusing. Luxemburg’s “first physical contribution to the German Revolution was an eloquent appeal to the printers’ proletarian conscience…[but]…it was no use”.

However, on 12 November the Executive Council of the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, “authorised the use of the firm’s printing and distribution facilities for the production of Die Rote Fahne, the authorisation being signed by Richard Müller”.57 But the newspaper management still refused and appealed to Ebert and the Council of the People’s Deputies. Here was an immediate test of wills in the context of dual power—Ebert won. J P Nettl contextualises Rosa Luxemburg’s role over the next two months by making the following observations:

All Rosa Luxemburg’s thinking for the past ten years had led her to emphasise the revolutionary potential of the masses, as against the possibility of influencing reluctant leaders. Since Spartakus possessed no effective organisation, this policy was not only theoretically desirable but practically inevitable. So for the next four weeks Rosa Luxemburg’s talents and energy were devoted to justifying the Spartakus position, to analysing events as a guide to the revolutionary masses, and finally to keeping in being the revolutionary potential of 9 November, on the grounds that what had been achieved that day was only a beginning and a poor one at that. When reading her articles in Rote Fahne (she finally found a publisher), it is essential to bear in mind the circumstances we have described, all resulting from the positive tactical decisions forced on Spartakus on the one hand, and from its isolation, partly deliberate, partly circumstantial.58

This placed severe constraints on Rosa Luxemburg’s role as editor of Rote Fahne. She could use the paper to analyse revolutionary events, strengths and weaknesses, as they unfolded. She could make eloquent and often brilliantly original and incisive demands for intervention to overcome the weaknesses. But she lacked the mechanism to implement those demands. This was a revolutionary paper without a revolutionary party. It meant that the paper could be ignored—or worse seized upon by the revolution’s enemies to distort its impact.

An analysis of Rote Fahne shows its enormous potential because of the brilliance of its editor and several of her comrades. But it also shows debilitating weaknesses, its lack of anchorage among organised workers, prone to reflect uneasily the revolutionary drift in the streets.

One of the most remarkable documents published in the Ben Fowkes collection is titled The Agreement for Co-operation made on 15 November 1918 Between 21 Employers’ Associations and 7 Trade Unions. The revolution was barely a week old and here was an agreement, irrespective of legitimately important concessions like the 8-hour day, that entrenched management’s right to manage. As Fowkes notes, the agreement was “an effective counter to the Council movement which threatened them from below”.59

Some 3,000 Daimler Marienfelde workers in Berlin put this agreement to an early test. Their demands included a potentially explosive resolution against the National Assembly in favour of all power to the workers’ ­councils—with the implication that they would take over the factory.

Rosa Luxemburg wrote in Rote Fahne:

The beginning of this strike movement is proof that the political revolution is shaking the very foundation of society…strikes are no “trade union” event… They are the natural response of the masses to the violent shock waves which capital has experienced through the collapse of German imperialism and the short political revolution of the workers and soldiers…they announce the commencement of direct and violent class struggle.60

This did indeed seem like the “fresh dynamic upsurge from rank and file workers below” that had been needed from the start.

On 12 December Siemens workers responded to a management ­ultimatum—accept our offer on pay and piecework, or be locked out—with a strike, as well as a threat to arrest the Siemens boss for counter-revolutionary treason!61 There was already a precedent. Five days earlier the directors of the giant Thyssen coal and steel group were seized by their employees in the Ruhr and taken to the Berlin Executive Council to face revolutionary justice, though Ebert had them successfully released without charge.62

Rote Fahne reported the mass strike meeting at Siemens:

An extraordinary event…Barth and Cohen came along and abruptly took control of the proceedings. Barth begged us “from his heart and on his knees” to go back to work. Accusing anyone who disagreed of being a Spartakist saboteur, he effectively split and confused those present. This Barth was the same man who had always prattled on about the unity of the class.63

Adolf Cohen was an SPD member64 with a history of abject ­conciliation but Emil Barth had been a highly respected Revolutionary Shop Steward plumbers’ leader. But during the November Revolution he began to fall out with Müller after being the only Revolutionary Shop Steward to join the Council of the People’s Deputies as part of the USPD group. By December he was judged by the shop stewards to be adapting to the Council’s counter-revolutionary politics and instructed to resign. He refused and was expelled from the Revolutionary Shop Stewards.65

What the Rote Fahne reports illustrate so successfully is the paper’s, and hence Rosa Luxemburg’s, detailed interventionist intentions exactly where it mattered: among rank and file workers who did indeed have the untapped power to rescue the revolution.

But the paper was not an organiser. Propagandist intervention, however brilliant, does not automatically translate into agitational implementation. That requires a critical mass of trained theoretical and practical agitators. So how great was the Rote Fahne impact? We have to conclude it was limited. It’s clear that Luxemburg finally realised this. Rote Fahne, 14 December, was devoted to the already mentioned “What Does the Spartacus League Want?” The text would become the basis of the foundation document, the programme, of the KPD, the German Communist Party, established at the end of 1918, but critically after, to use Müller’s apt expression, the “suicide” of the workers and soldiers councils.66

Rote Fahne and Spartacus may have had limited impact but the revolution’s enemies seized upon their activities, exaggerating their impact, with the deliberate intention of frightening the mass of workers caught between reform and revolution. Luxemburg explained in an article “The Usual Game” with headlines adapted from the counter-revolutionary press:

Liebknecht has murdered two hundred officers… The Spartacus gang stormed the Marstall (political administrative centre in Berlin)… The Spartacus gang tried to enter the Berliner Tageblatt offices with machine guns… Liebknecht loots stores… [He] distributes money amongst soldiers to entice them to counter-revolutionary action.67

The difficulty was that the rumours spread by what was indeed an orchestrated campaign played upon real weaknesses with the Spartacus position. This became very clear when negotiations began between Spartacus and the Revolutionary Shop Stewards to try and agree a joint basis for forming the KPD. Richard Müller worried that the “revolutionary gymnastics” that he had complained about were sometimes stimulated ­irresponsibly by Rote Fahne with, for example, passages like: “Destruction and liquidation by the anarchy of capitalism, or rebirth through social revolution. The hour of decision has struck. If you believe in socialism, now is the time to show it through action”.68

Gluckstein notes: “In a delicately poised situation of dual power such calls, unless they are going to be backed up by solid planning and organisation, can easily play into the hand of the enemy.” A lingering impression is given of empty rhetoric lacking conviction—potentially self defeating: “The clenched fist of the revolutionary proletariat will rise from the National Assembly and banners will fly with the fiery letters—‘All power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils’”.69

Broué provides a vivid description of the strengths and weaknesses of Spartacus:

Liebknecht, an indefatigable agitator, spoke everywhere that revolutionary ideas could find an echo. Entire columns of the slim Die Rote Fahnewere devoted to calls for gatherings, meetings, demonstrations and processions of soldiers, unemployed, deserters and men on leave. The fact is that the Spartacists had neither the power nor, doubtless, the desire to control these demonstrations, and they often provided the opportunity for dubious elements to engage in violent, futile and even harmful incidents. The leaders knew the dangers for the image which they wanted to give of their movement, coming from the untimely enthusiasm of elements often foreign to the industrial working class who claimed to be supporters for their organisation. Luxemburg admitted in Die Rote Fahne the danger…“They disfigure our socialist aims, fully aware and knowing very well what they are doing, and are trying to divert our socialist aims into lumpen-proletarian adventures”.70

But Luxemburg also adopted positions that would undermine ­prospects for unity with the Revolutionary Shop Stewards. She described the Berlin Executive of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils as the “sarcophagus of the revolution” and “the fifth wheel of the cart of the crypto-capitalist governmental clique”.71

Luxemburg, Müller, Lenin

Introducing documents describing “Communism and Insurrection”72 in the German Revolution, Ben Fowkes turns to Chris Harman’s The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-23 for some critical insights. One of the most damning describes Luxemburg’s failure at the foundation conference of the German Communist Party, the KPD, to convince “the majority of delegates…that it was necessary to win the masses…before trying to take over government”.73

It was precisely this Spartacist ultra-leftism, with its implicit elitism, that had repelled Müller, Däumig and the other Revolutionary Shop Stewards, preventing them from joining the KPD and attending the conference. Paradoxically, had they and their supporters done so they might have provided Luxemburg with the majority she needed.

But, as Harman argues, they should have and could have come together much earlier. This, of course, is the position that Lenin had argued. In Hoffrogge’s book, it finds support from an unexpected source: Richard Müller. Müller did finally join the KPD—only to find himself expelled in 1923 for writing an unacceptable history of the German Revolution.74

Introducing us to Müller the historian, Hoffrogge reveals in a paragraph arguably the biggest single clue both to why the revolution failed and why Luxemburg’s impact on the revolution in November and December was so limited.

Müller probably first grappled with Marxist theory and history extensively in 1922 and 1923. Unlike other leaders of the German working class Liebknecht, Luxemburg or Hilferding who were highly educated, often with advanced degrees, Müller, who did not even go to high school, had learned his socialist theory only as he needed it for practical purposes in the little free time he had between working and engaging with the union. By then, he had read more of Frederick Taylor and writings on industrial management than he had of Marx. But Müller possessed a solid political instinct for the big picture and complex connections, which allowed him to synthesise his own experiences with sophisticated theoretical and historiographical frameworks that he studied after his retreat from active politics.75

Thus we learn that one of the revolution’s most influential worker leaders became a Marxist after the failure of the revolution. In my article on Lenin I used a much celebrated passage from Antonio Gramsci to suggest that Richard Müller was a perfect illustration of a type of worker leader, an “active man in the mass” but who “has no theoretical consciousness of his practical activity”. This led to “contradictory consciousness” where the conservative pull of the past can be as strong as the revolutionary anticipation of the future, leading to political paralysis.76

This formed the central argument in Chris Harman’s essay “Party and Class” where he grappled with the legacies of Luxemburg, Lenin and Gramsci to address the problems at the heart of this article:

The revolutionary party exists so as to make it possible for the most conscious and militant workers and intellectuals to engage in scientific discussion as a prelude to concerted and cohesive action. This is not possible without general participation in party activities. This requires clarity and precision in argument combined with organisational decisiveness. The alternative is the “marsh”—where elements motivated by scientific precision are so mixed up with those who are irremediably confused as to prevent any decisive action, effectively allowing the most backward to lead. The discipline necessary for such a debate is the discipline of those who have “combined by a freely adopted decision”.77

The phrase, “combined by a freely adopted decision”, is taken from Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? Lars Lih’s reworking of What Is To Be Done? very much fits this perspective. Lih identifies in Lenin’s writings the purposive worker. “Genuine heroes”, says Lenin, who show a “passionate drive toward knowledge and toward socialism”. This is the party’s “worker intelligentsia” who form its backbone. We must insist, says Lenin, that it is their party.78

Not only did Richard Müller draw similar conclusions, he made his admiration for Lenin explicit in the preface to his first volume on the German Revolution, published in 1925, and “referred explicitly to the theoretical achievements of the revolutionary”.79 In his third volume, The Civil War in Germany, Müller dealt with the suppression of the January 1919 uprising, the assassinations of Luxemburg and Liebknecht and the end of the Bavarian Council Republic. The January-March 1919 period witnessed an upsurge of woefully uncoordinated mass strike activity in response to the absence of socialisation which ended in defeat.80 As Hoffrogge notes: “The civil war framework was not only useful for morally condemning the crimes of [SPD defence minister Gustav] Noske and the Freikorps,81 it also proved…the frank depiction of the working class’s unpreparedness for a decisive struggle for power:

If the proletariat was unable to strike back in a coordinated way…that was, according to Müller, because it lacked a political party with a clear programme, revolutionary experience, and the will to power, the latter being an allusion to the USPD’s indecision. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who had been independently organised in Russia long before their own revolution, served as part of Müller’s model…

But only a part. In Müller’s mind, admiration for Lenin sat alongside open criticism of the purges and the limitation of internal party debate that he had expressed in his own letter of January 1922. Leninist discipline and decisiveness had to be combined with the Shop Steward’s closeness to the rank and file and direct democracy to yield Müller’s political ideal. His conception was therefore very close to the political line of Rosa Luxemburg, whom Müller praised as the clearest and boldest mind of the revolution and whose theory of revolution he had approvingly referred to in his first book”.82

The tragic paradox of Rosa Luxemburg

Richard Müller realised he had needed a revolutionary party that combined the best of Lenin and Luxemburg. Hoffrogge believes that had she lived, Müller would have remained active in a communist party led by her.83

Comparing and contrasting Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s perspectives on revolutionary organisation has exercised the minds of many political theorists and activists on the independent Marxist left for more than two generations—especially since the revolutionary upsurge of 1968 and the demise of Stalinism.

We can safely say it remains “work in progress”, though what follow are some very important insights offered by two such theorists, Tony Cliff and Paul Le Blanc. But before turning to their work we must answer the questions posed at the beginning of this article. What happened to Rosa Luxemburg in those last two months of 1918 when the socialist revolution to which she had literally devoted her life and indeed would die for hovered, at least momentarily, on the brink of success?

It seems that despite the enormous respect and affection with which she was held among thousands of worker activists, her political impact was very restricted bordering on isolation. It manifested itself mainly through her editorship of Rote Fahne, the paper of the Spartacists which seems not to have established a secure readership base in the key workplaces. The paper most certainly differed from Lenin’s conception of a revolutionary paper as organiser.84 Rote Fahne wasn’t an organiser of the minority of worker activists in the workplaces frustrated with SPD or even the USPD leadership.

Luxemburg, the workers’ movement and the German Revolution itself deserved better than this. Despite their disagreements, Luxemburg might cautiously have accepted the pithy statement from Lenin that “politics cannot be separated mechanically from organisation”.85 The statement holds the key to grasping the problem.

Tony Cliff was a tremendous enthusiast for Rosa Luxemburg but not an uncritical one. His starting point was always unreserved admiration for her recognition of the creative potential of the working class. This mattered because of two crucial moments in the 20th century. Firstly, overcoming the dead weight of the huge conservative bureaucracy of the SPD, the world’s first Marxist mass-based party with deep roots among the growing working class, and its associated trade unions in Germany. Secondly, much later, liberating Marxism from its Stalinist straitjacket, especially for the “1968 generation”. Reviving the memory of Rosa Luxemburg helped bring alive to thousands of new activists the fundamental Marxist proposition that Stalinism had crushed: that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.

But this begged a huge question. Was the mass activity of workers, unleashed in revolutionary situations, sufficient to overcome the conservatism of their traditional organisations? Cliff’s answer was no and that Luxemburg’s greatest mistake was in underestimating this. She had written in 1906 and repeated the underlying, potentially fatalistic, argument many times:

If at any time and under any circumstances, Germany were to experience big political struggles, an era of tremendous economic struggles would…open up. Events would not stop for a second in order to ask union leaders whether they had given their blessing to the movement or not. If they stood aside from the movement or opposed it, the result of such behaviour would only be this: the union or Party leaders would be swept away by the wave of events and the economic as well as the political struggles would be fought to a conclusion without them.86

Events in those last two months of 1918 shattered this perspective.

Several of Rosa Luxemburg’s most important letters reveal a pattern of fatalism that seems to have affected her political judgment. Responding to the rightward drift of the SPD before the war, she wrote to Kostya Zetkin, son of Clara Zetkin, on 20 January 1912: “All of this will soon get back on the rails…historical circumstances will definitely take care of all that”. Again, to Clara Zetkin, in the middle of the war, 9 March 1916, “I place my trust…in the objective logic of history, which tirelessly carries out its work of clarification and differentiation.” And later in the same letter, “my strongest conviction, which I immediately expressed to the fretful Karl [Liebknecht] and others: not to want to do too much; a few calm well aimed steps—that’s all that is now necessary… Objective development, doing its part, will have to accomplish the rest.” And in a compelling letter to Luise Kautsky, wife of Karl, dated 15 April 1917, Luxemburg denounces the “cheap fatalistic optimism” of Luise’s husband, “which only seeks to veil its impotence, the kind of outlook that…is so hateful to me.” Yet she offers, by contrast, a different brand of fatalism:

No, no, I am ready at the first opportunity [to] begin striking the keys of World History’s piano so that it will really boom. But since right now I happen to be on leave from World History, not through any fault of my own but because of external compulsion, I just laugh to myself and rejoice that things are moving ahead without me, and I believe with rock hard certainty that all will go well. History always knows how to manage for the best even when it seems to have run into a blind alley of the most hopeless kind.87

Paul Le Blanc proposes we follow Lenin in understanding disagreements with Luxemburg in the context of a full recognition of Luxemburg’s true stature and contribution to the movement. In 1921 Lenin, adapting an old Russian fable, said: “Eagles may at times fly lower than hens, but hens can never rise to the height of eagles.” He insisted that “in spite of her mistakes she was—and remains for us an eagle. And not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works…will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world”.88

Le Blanc, though, provides a crucial additional insight into Luxemburg’s refusal to break with the SPD before the war even though she had fully understood—long before Lenin—its adaptation to reformism. Responding to Lenin’s view that the party organising the vanguard of the working class must not be confused with the entire class, Luxemburg argued the opposite. The party should indeed try to organise all of the working class: “The social democratic movement89 cannot allow the erection of an air tight partition between the class conscious nucleus already in the party and its immediate popular environment, the non-party sections of the proletariat.” This would only lead to the party becoming a sect: “Stop the natural pulsation of a living organism, and you will weaken it, and you diminish its resistance and combative spirit”.90

As Le Blanc says, “Lenin sees the party not as embracing the working class, but as interacting with it to influence it in a revolutionary direction. For Luxemburg, in the passage we are looking at, the point is to blend into the class as it exists, the better to contribute to its organic development as a revolutionary force”.91 As Le Blanc points out, Luxemburg here offers no clear alternatives to Lenin’s orientation except for the organisational form of German social democracy.92

Luxemburg held so rigidly to this view that at first she even opposed the split in the SPD in the middle of the war. It was, arguably, a catastrophic misreading of the situation where both sides were contemptuously dismissed as equally vile “splitters” and an assumption made that, in any case, German Social Democracy’s capitulation to imperialism had already driven it into history’s graveyard:

The amusing squabble between the two tendencies as to which of them really wants to split the party, and the eager efforts of both of them to lay the blame for this monstrous crime on their opponents is in itself a nice illustration of how much actually the whole conception of the basic conditions of the party’s existence for the right wing and for the swamp are actually cut from the same cloth… Both of them fail to notice that their quarrel about…the splitting or the unity of German Social Democracy has now become a fight for a shadow, for today the German Social Democracy as a whole no longer exists.93

Luxemburg’s perspective here is thrown into particularly sharp relief when it came to her ferocious opposition to Lenin splitting the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks in 1912. A handwritten document by her, “Credo: On the State of Russian Social Democracy”, discovered only in 1991, denounced the preparations for the split as Lenin began organising for it in 1911. What is extraordinary is that her loathing for the Mensheviks is as great as Lenin’s. Not only are they “the ruin of the workers movement”, they are a “malignant cancer on the body of the party, of which the party should rid itself—the sooner the better”. And yet “we do not see that it is possible to accomplish this operation by settling old factional scores with fists, as it were”.94

Luxemburg denounced the factionalism of all sides—including Trotsky who she accuses of effectively siding with the Mensheviks. Somehow party unity could be restored by a properly constituted party conference. But factionalism was making this impossible. The document reflects both the impasse and Luxemburg’s failure to show convincingly how it could be overcome—without a split.95

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks developed as two very distinctive mass-based political tendencies, those insisting on working class hegemony in the revolutionary struggle, and those fatally diluting that fundamental principle. And that the effectiveness of the Bolsheviks was directly connected to their independence. October 1917 would have been impossible without the break with the Mensheviks.96

As a working hypothesis, perhaps we can tentatively conclude that the tragedy of Rosa Luxemburg is that her entirely honourable, overwhelming confidence in the revolutionary spirit and potential of the working class paradoxically slowed her grasp about how its leadership is created. It meant she arrived too late at a full understanding of the principle that underpinned the October victory.


1: Hoffrogge, 2014 and Fowkes, 2014. The narrow focus means that this is not a review article. Both books deserve separate review articles especially Ben Fowkes’s, which provides superb and original documentary evidence and commentary for the entirety of the Weimar Republic. Ben Fowkes joined Norman LaPorte and Ralf Hoffrogge on the platform for the launch of Hoffrogge’s book at the London Historical Materialism conference in November 2014. I would like to thank Ralf Hoffrogge and Paul Le Blanc for their generous and helpful comments about this article and Georges Paizis for his literary and technical assistance.

2: Hoffrogge, 2014, p6.

3: Hoffrogge, 2014, p61. I return to this later.

4: Hoffrogge, 2014, p194.

5: Richard Müller’s own history of these events makes scant mention of Luxemburg during these two months (Ralf Hoffrogge, personal communication).

6: The Spartacists or Spartacus League was formed by militant socialists opposed to the First World War inside the SPD.

7: Hoffrogge, 2014, p21.

8: Social democrats, from now on referred to as the SPD, Social Democratic Party of Germany, the world’s first mass-based workers’ Marxist party, which had become increasingly reformist before the war. Even so its capitulation to German imperialism in 1914—“The Great Betrayal”—shocked the international socialist movement. See Blackledge, 2014.

9: Hoffrogge, 2014, p36.

10: Hoffrogge, 2014, p49.

11: Hoffrogge, 2014, p61.

12: Hoffrogge’s acute observation, 2014, p61.

13: Hoffrogge, 2014, p66. For details see Broué, 2006, pp139-142. Harman, 1982, pp42-48.

14: Hoffrogge, 2014, p62.

15: Hoffrogge, 2014, p64. See also Kuhn, 2012, pp76-79.

16: Hoffrogge, 2014, p62.

17: Hoffrogge, 2014, pp64-65.

18: Hoffrogge, 2014, p68. Däumig was founder-editor of the USPD paper Freiheit, co-opted on to the Revolutionary Shop Stewards. He and Müller later attempted to theorise how workers’ councils would manage a socialist society—Hoffrogge, 2014, pp108-117.

19: Hoffrogge, 2014, p68.

20: Hoffrogge, 2014, p68, footnote 24.

21: Hoffrogge, 2014, p69. Scheidemann was a right wing SPD leader.

22: The scene was captured in a famous novel The Kaiser Goes: The Generals Remain written in 1932 by Theodor Plivier who also wrote the anti-war novel Stalingrad—Hoffrogge, 2014, pp69-70.

23: Hoffrogge, 2014, p70.

24: Hoffrogge, 2014, pp72-73. The Cirkus Busch was a permanent circus building in the city centre, one of the largest buildings available for the assembly.

25: Hoffrogge, 2014, p73.

26: Hoffrogge, 2014, p73.

27: See Broué, 2006, chapter 9, “The Period of Dual Power”, pp157-188.

28: Hoffrogge, 2014, p75.

29: Hoffrogge, 2014, p76, See also Broué, 2006, pp151-55, Harman, 1982, pp48-51.

30: According to Broué, Luxemburg’s name was on the slate—Broué, 2006, p153.

31: Hoffrogge, 2014, pp76-78.

32: Hoffrogge, 2014, p79.

33: Hoffrogge, 2014, p81.

34: Hoffrogge, 2014, p81, footnote 2.

35: Hoffrogge, 2014, p86. Ebert was a major SPD leader on the Council of Peoples’ Deputies. Broué cites Müller that the anti-Semitism was quite explicit, coup leaders describing the Executive Council HQ as a “synagogue”—Broué, 2006, p183.

36: Hoffrogge, 2014, p92.

37: Hoffrogge, 2014, p93.

38: Hoffrogge, 2014, p94.

39: Hoffrogge, 2014, p94. Emphasis added. Broué notes that only a minority of delegates were workers, the rest were professionals, 2006, p184.

40: Fowkes, 2014, p24.

41: Broué, 2006, p185.

42: Fowkes, 2014, p230. See his selection of relevant documents, pp226-229.

43: Hoffrogge, 2014, p95.

44: Nettl, 1966, p713.

45: Nettl, 1966, p714, citing Paul Frölich. Launching the first volume of a planned 14 volumes of Rosa Luxemburg’s collected writings at Bookmarks bookshop in November 2014 (the volumes will comprise of 85 percent of Luxemburg’s writings, previously unavailable in English), Peter Hudis told us that, for all its limitations, Nettl’s remains the best biography.

46: Frölich, 1940, pp288-289.

47: Adler, Hudis and Laschitza, 2013, p484. See also Nettl, 1966, pp716-717.

48: Luxemburg, 1918, chapter 8.

49: Broué, 2006, p123.

50: Le Blanc, 2014, pp130-132.

51: For Lenin, the organisational break was as important as the political break—a distinction that Luxemburg clearly did not share. I thank Paul Le Blanc for insisting that I underline Luxemburg’s political break with Kautsky.

52: Lenin, 1916, pp305-319, also Rose, 2014. This was the basis of a paper I presented at the Historical Materialism conference in 2014.

53: Lenin, 1918, pp104-112.

54: See Broué, 2006, pp120-121 for an excellent summary.

55: Kuhn, 2012, p113. I commented on the Gabriel Kuhn collection of documents from the German Revolution 1918-19 in my article about Lenin’s pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder in International Socialism 138, and in particular key aspects of Luxemburg’s programme. See in particular Rose, 2013, p142, footnote 53.

56: We have a unique insight into Luxemburg’s view at the time. Morgan Philips Price was a Manchester Guardian and Daily Herald journalist in both Russia and Germany in 1918. Sympathetic to the Bolsheviks and on good terms with both Lenin and Trotsky, he first met Rosa Luxemburg in December of that year. He was taken aback when she asked him if the soviets were working entirely satisfactorily. He replied of course they were, but later changed his mind as he realised what was motivating her—Philips Price, 1969, p160. I would like to thank John Palmer for recommending this book.

57: Nettl, 1966, p722. See Broué, 2006, p190 for a different interpretation.

58: Nettl, 1966, p726.

59: Fowkes, 2014, pp18-21.

60: Rote Fahne, 27 November, quoted in Gluckstein, 1985, p131. Hoffrogge praises Gluckstein for understanding the major role played by the Berlin Revolutionary Shop Stewards—Hoffrogge, 2014, p5, footnote 9.

61: Rote Fahne, in Gluckstein, 1985, p140.

62: Gluckstein, 1985, pp140-141.

63: Rote Fahne, in 15 December, Gluckstein, 1985, p141.

64: Hoffrogge, 2014, p86.

65: Hoffrogge, 2014, p84.

66: Kuhn, 2012, p113.

67: Rote Fahne, 18 November, quoted in Kuhn, 2012, pp84-86.

68: Rote Fahne, 25 November, quoted in Gluckstein, 1985, p148.

69: Rote Fahne, 23 December, Gluckstein, 1985, p148.

70: Broué, 2006, pp204-205. See Harman on this passage from Broué—Harman, 1982, p65.

71: Rote Fahne, 11 December, quoted in Broué, 2006, pp183-184.

72: Fowkes, 2014, chapter 3.

73: Fowkes, 2014, p72, citing Harman, 1982.

74: Hoffrogge, 2014, p180.

75: Hoffrogge, 2014, pp187-188.

76: Rose, 2013, pp138-139.

77: Harman, 1996, p30.

78: Lih, 2008, pp344-345. Kevin Corr’s and Gareth Jenkins’s criticism of Lih’s book in their article in International Socialism 144, make clear their acceptance of this aspect of Lih’s innovatory analysis of What Is To Be Done?—Corr and Jenkins, 2014.

79: Hoffrogge, 2014, p191. Müller carefully distinguished his very positive attitude to Lenin from his very negative experiences with the KPD and the Comintern. He met Lenin after the 3rd Congress of the Comintern. See Hoffrogge’s intriguing description, 2014, p164.

80: Hoffrogge, 2014, pp193-194. See also Broué, 2006, “The Noske Period”, pp261-284 and Harman, 1982, “The Months of Civil War”, pp96-124.

81: Noske was the most notorious of the right wing SPD leaders who worked closely with the Freikorps, responsible for the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht and many others. The Freikorps was the armed centre of the counter-revolution. Müller described them as “nationalist death squads” with swastikas on their steel helmets—Hoffrogge, 2014, p195.

82: Hoffrogge, 2014, pp193-194.

83: Hoffrogge, 2014, p194.

84: “Can a newspaper be a collective organiser?”—pp819-830 in Lih, 2008. This is from Lih’s new and complete translation of What Is To Be Done? See also Lih’s comments, pp604-608.

85: Lukács, 1968, p295. Georg Lukács uses this remark from Lenin’s speech closing the 11th Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1923 to open his own discussion on Rosa Luxemburg and revolutionary organisation.

86: Cliff, 1986, p44, citing Luxemburg, Ausgewahlte Redden und Schriften(selected speeches and writings), volume 1, 1955, pp235-236.

87: Adler, Hudis and Laschitza, 2013, p317, pp356-358, pp392-393. I thank Alex Callinicos for recommending Verso’s marvellous new collection of these letters.

88: Lenin, quoted in Le Blanc, 2014, p138.

89: The language here of course is misleading to us a century later. “Social democratic” for both Luxemburg and Lenin meant “revolutionary socialist”.

90: Le Blanc, 1999, p95, citing Waters, 1970.

91: Le Blanc, 1999, pp95-96.

92: Le Blanc, 1999, p96. See the rest of this paragraph for Luxemburg’s rationale, her reference to “an inevitable phase of historic development,” seems again fatalistic. A further complication is Luxemburg’s inconsistency in relation to “vanguard” parties. Le Blanc has successfully compared two passages, one from Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike: The Political Party and The Trade Unions, and the other from Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? showing “strikingly similar formulations” when it comes to their respective views on party organisation—Le Blanc, 2014, p135. See also Chris Harman in Party and Class. At the height of the 1968 enthusiasm for Rosa Luxemburg, Chris, while unstinting in his admiration for so many of her political qualities, nevertheless warned that Luxemburg never explicitly rejected Kautsky’s model of the party—Harman, 1996, p19.

93: Luxemburg, 2009, p88. This was an “Open Letter” written in 1916. Its conclusion contradicts this passage by warning that although German Social Democracy was indeed a “heap of organised decay”, it still provided a “lethal noose” around the neck of the working class, condemned to fight it “for decades” after the war—p91. The letter was translated by Ian Birchall. I’d like to thank Ian for directing me to it.

94: The document was translated and published in Hudis and Anderson, 2004, pp266-280.

95: See Le Blanc, 2012, for a particularly comprehensive analysis of the split and its inevitability.

96: I would like to thank Paul Le Blanc for our email exchange about the Mensheviks.


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