Spontaneity, strikes and socialism: rereading Rosa Luxemburg

Issue: 181

Charlie Kimber

A review of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, volume 3: Political Writings 1, On Revolution 1897-1905, Peter Hudis, Axel Fair-Schulz and William A Pelz (eds) (Verso), £70 and The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, volume 4: Political ­Writings 2, On Revolution: 1906-09, Peter Hudis and Sandra Rein (eds) (Verso), £70

You have not read most of what the great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote. Moreover, if you do not read German or Polish, you have hardly scratched the surface. This comes as quite a shock. In 1922, Lenin wrote:

Not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works (the publication of which the German Communists are inordinately delaying, which can only be partly excused by the tremendous losses they are suffering in their severe struggle) will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world.1

Lenin might have chafed at the sloth of the German Communists. How much more enraged we should be that more than a century after Luxemburg’s death “the vast bulk of her writings have never appeared in English. Indeed, much of her work has not even appeared in German or been accessible to the public for many decades”.2

Almost none of her 3,000 pages of writings in Polish have been translated into English, and the large majority of the writings reviewed here appear in English for the first time. They are a treasure trove and all the more powerful for their timing. I read these volumes in the week leading up to the 1 February strikes in Britain, which involved half a million workers, and their immediate aftermath. So, much of what Luxemburg wrote felt utterly relevant, and it also helped me think about how revolutionaries should react to mass struggle. This is not because the scale, intensity and challenge to capitalism of the British strikes are in any way comparable to the battles between workers and Tsarism in the Russian Empire in 1905. It is because Luxemburg’s appreciation of how workers’ action punctures the usual patterns of life in capitalism, and how workers learn during such battles, have a much wider application than the specific examples she addresses.

These volumes bring together dozens of newspaper articles, speeches, essays, pamphlets, court transcripts, scribbles in books and more. There are 116 articles in the first volume (45 of them called “The Revolution in Russia”) and 46 in the second. The editors, translators and advisers deserve immense thanks for this project, which will continue for many more volumes—and with hundreds of thousands more words—to explore the themes I raise here as well as others.

The two volumes reviewed here centre on the explosion of strikes and protests after Bloody Sunday in January 1905, when the Tsar’s troops gunned down protesters outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. This followed a wave of major strikes and street demonstrations that came as Russia lost a war against Japan and the Tsar outlawed strikes and unions.

The uprising that followed engulfed much of the Russian Empire, with workers confronting bosses while peasants went into action against their landlords. This unrest spilled over into the Russian-occupied parts of Poland—a nation partitioned between Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Tsar—and Luxemburg returned to the country from Germany during the upheaval. The 1905 Revolution also spawned the workers’ council—the soviet—as a central form of working-class organisation. All of this was a surprise to those socialists who thought that backward Russia, with its tiny working class, could never be the site of mass fightbacks that would turn it into the vanguard of progress.3

Spontaneity, organisation and socialist parties

There is a caricature of Luxemburg that sees her as a worshipper of the spontaneity of the working class. She is said to be a naive advocate of just letting workers get on with their instinctive capacity for struggle, which will lead semi-automatically to sufficient political understanding. This is often contrasted with Lenin’s supposed insistence that, in all cases and in all time periods, political consciousness can be brought to workers only from outside of the economic struggle, which thus necessitates the role of professional revolutionaries. Both caricatures are false, and these volumes underline that Luxemburg put forward a far more sophisticated argument, which does not collapse into some form of “pure” spontaneity.

She certainly does stress the way that outbursts of resistance come as a surprise and outstrip the expectations of apparently wise theorists, who never see them coming. Luxemburg is fond of meteorological and physical terms, describing the process of mass struggle with terms such as “lightning bolt”, “lightning flash”, “ball lightning”, “zigzag lighting”, “electric shock”, “storm”, “hurricane”, “thunderstorm”, “wildfire” and so on.4 It is the sense of a sleeping giant, brought to energetic and raging life by the rousing voltaic charge of the fight. The 1905 revolt in the Russian Empire was “largely spontaneous and instinctive”, she insists.5 Nevertheless, the process does not stop with the initial outburst. Instead, the experience of fighting back takes people beyond the specific issue they began with:

All of a sudden, the masses of proletarians, who numbered millions, became acutely conscious of the intolerability of the social and economic existence that they had endured for decades under the bondage of capitalism. There thus began a spontaneous, generalised shaking off of, and straining against, these fetters. All the thousand-fold sufferings of the modern proletariat remind it of old, bloody wounds. Here the struggle is for the eight-hour day, there it is against piecework; in one place brutal foremen are “escorted out” in a sack on a handcart, elsewhere infamous disciplinary systems are resisted; everywhere the struggle is for better wages, and here and there it is for the abolition of the putting-out system of labour. Backward, degraded occupations in cities, small provincial towns that had been gradually declining in an idyllic sleep until that point, the village with its legacy of serfdom—all of these, having been aroused by the lightning flash in January, suddenly began to focus on their rights and attempted feverishly to make up for all omissions of the past.6

The motive force for the proletariat’s educational and cultural growth is not a lecture or a publication. Nor is it mere trade unionism—what Luxemburg refers to as “the beehive-type activity of endless building new trade union cells”. Rather, it is the mass strike.

The editors of these volumes point out, “Luxemburg attaches many different adjectives to the word ‘strike’—there are more than 15 types of strike identified in these writings”.7 This is not accidental. Luxemburg wants to highlight the varying types of organisation and the range of political demands embedded in the many kinds of strikes. The mass strike, however, as seen in the 1905 Revolution, is a novel form that brings together economics and politics in a way that goes beyond the staid tactics of parliamentary socialism. It is “the living pulse of the revolution and simultaneously its most powerful driver”:

The mass strike, as it presents itself to us in the Russian Revolution, is not an ingenious means devised for the purpose of achieving a more powerful effect of proletarian struggle; it is rather the mode of motion of the proletarian mass, the form of manifestation of proletarian struggle within the revolution.8

The deployment of the mass strike in 1905 did not represent the Russians “catching up” with the more developed working class of the West. It would be “totally wrong for the social democracy of Western Europe to see in the Russian upheaval merely a historical imitation of what has long since ‘come into existence’ in Germany and France”.9 Instead, it was different and better and something for workers everywhere to follow.

This was a sharply controversial view. Luxemburg had been involved for years in the debates inside the mighty German Social Democratic Party (SPD; Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) over how the working class would become fitted to run society and which method was needed for it to develop its power. The SPD, seen as the world’s premier socialist party, had in practice become increasingly bureaucratised and in thrall to exclusively parliamentary methods. Luxemburg had fought this drift and, in her work Social Reform or Revolution?, written in 1899, had written a systematic refutation of the SPD’s right wing and its leading theorist, Eduard Bernstein.

However, to make her argument concrete, she needed evidence of a living movement as an alternative to the slow march through the state institutions. Moreover, she also needed a link between economics and politics that was not the executive committees of the SPD and the trade unions. This is why her analysis of the Russian mass strikes is so exuberant and so detailed. It is the bridge between a theoretical rejection of reformism and the actuality of a ­revolutionary process. The mass strike is in some ways wild and chaotic. Yet, in that lies its strength. It has not been turned on from above, and it cannot be turned off. Instead, it liberates the possibilities of true working-class ­organisation. Crucially, the workers begin to direct themselves in the course of the mass strike. As socialist writer Colin Barker put it:

In the mass strikes and struggles of the Russian workers, Luxemburg identified the lever with which the world might be overturned and made anew. For, in that experience, she found the social mechanism through which, at the same time, working-class people were drawn into a powerful form of struggle with the capacity to challenge the structures of the Tsarist autocracy and equally of the growing capitalist order within it, and—more than that—could be seen as developing and transforming themselves sufficiently to become capable of creating a new form of social rule altogether.10

In “A Test Based on A Sample”, Luxemburg writes:

The mass of the proletariat, in ordinary times, is welded to the chain of capital. It is tied down in factories, workplaces and mines and, at the same time, it is isolated and fragmented. If the working class wishes to undertake any kind of direct political mass action, it must before all else lay down tools and leave the factories, workplaces and mines. Thus, the general strike is the first step and the natural initial form of every open mass action—or, at any rate, of every modern revolution in the streets.11

Once launched, the mass strike interlaces political and economic struggles:

The sudden general insurrection of the proletariat in January under the tremendous impetus of the St Petersburg events was outwardly a political act—the revolutionary declaration of war on absolutism. Yet, inwardly, this first universal, direct class action had a retroactive effect that was all the more powerful in that, among millions upon millions of people, it aroused class sentiment and class consciousness for the first time, as if through an electric shock.

Instead of the quantitative addition of party members, votes and union structures, the ignition provided by the mass strike reveals the possibility of a qualitative development of working-class leadership.

There is a lot of material in these two volumes that confirms and deepens the analysis that will be familiar to those who have read Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike, The Political Party and the Trade Unions, which she wrote during this period. Yet, there is also much more here, particularly about conscious intervention by ­revolutionaries. Indeed, at one point, Luxemburg suggests it is impossible to separate the development of the revolution from the pre-existence of socialist ideas and leadership. At the start of the Russian events, she wrote, “Today’s revolution, no matter what form or outer expression it took to begin with, was not something shot out of a pistol, but rather grew historically out of the social-democratic ­movement.” She adds, “It constitutes a normal stage, a natural nodal point in the course of the development of social-democratic work”.12 Another article states:

The sum total of class consciousness, political maturity and idealism that was given expression in the mass revolt of the St Petersburg proletariat, and which has become a historical reality, must be credited to the account of the untiring, decades-long labour, the “old mole’s work”, of socialist agitation, or to state it more precisely, to the agitators of the Russian Social Democratic Party.13

Nevertheless, of course, she brings home that, even if it is heartening to read of the distribution of social-democratic literature, “With all great respect for these pamphlets, it would be a disastrous error to trick ourselves into believing that these writings alone transported the revolutionary moment into the political movement”.14 Luxemburg’s point is that the experience of struggle is crucial, but that this combines with political leadership by socialists and then, in turn, the experience of class war enriches socialist theory and practice. It is the interlocking combination of ideological preparation and class battles that is so powerful:

It is true, of course, that the first forward step by the mass of the St Petersburg working class brought to the surface various peculiar odds and ends—illusions of trust in the Tsar and unknown accidental leaders left over from yesterday. As in all tremendous outbreaks of revolution, the glowing lava at first heaves up over the rim of the crater all sorts of slag and gross sediment from the depths. However, even in the case of these accidental and momentary features, these rudiments of an outdated world outlook were quickly stripped away in the fire of the revolutionary situation, and soon there came clearly to the fore a powerful, healthy and well-developed nucleus of purely proletarian class consciousness along with a straightforward and unpretentious but heroic idealism free of all posing and posturing—and free of the theatrical gestures found at the “grand moments” in bourgeois history.15

The 1905 events are revelatory and demonstrate that the mass strike could potentially do all the things Luxemburg ascribes to it above. Nevertheless, it is not at all obvious that it does always and everywhere. What happens if the required political ­shaping and direction given by leadership does not exist in advance and cannot be constructed in the heat of struggle? Strikes appear like a lightning bolt—political parties do not.

There is a further critique of Luxemburg that claims her position remains essentially abstract. The working class engages in struggle, and then the party arrives with the necessary and coherent politics. The points above partly undermine this characterisation of her ideas, but there is also other evidence against it. In a discussion about May Day marches, Luxemburg proudly reports about messages sent to her about the interventions of Polish social democracy. She includes much detail about the distribution of a number of party publications:

1. A pamphlet about May Day aimed at a popular audience. 2. A large May Day flyer, or brochure, of eight printed pages, which analyses and discusses the connection between the May Day celebration this year and the revolution going on in the Tsarist empire as a whole. 3. A May Day proclamation, which was printed at the party’s secret printing plant inside the country, with about 75,000 copies on white paper with red lettering, and which for the first time this year was also addressed to the agricultural proletariat. 4. An appeal to student youth to join the May Day action.

The list continues on for nine examples of material “reaching into the remotest nests in the provinces. Among cities covered were Warsaw, Łódź, Częstochowa, Neualexandrien, Lublin, Białystok, Siedlce, Żyrardów, Włocławek, Piotrków, Pruszków, Góra Kalwaria, Kaczy Dół, Alexandrov, Dobrzelin, Jeziorna, Płock, Ostrołęka and Grójec”.16 This is not the account of someone divorced from the struggle.

This underlines the issue of Luxemburg’s attitude towards revolutionary organisation. Quite contrary to what some believe about her, numerous articles in these volumes examine the most detailed elements of the revolutionary process and socialists’ ­intervention in them. Luxemburg also repeatedly seizes upon the uprising in Russia as a way of winning an argument against the other political forces in Poland. These articles are the intervention of a political operator—a party leader fighting to win over workers to her organisation and to break them from rivals. Here a central question was whether socialists should support the call for national independence raised by the Polish Socialist Party (PPS; Polska Partia Socjalistyczn). Luxemburg’s party, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL; Socjaldemokracja Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy), had split from the PPS in 1893, with the national question central to the divergence. Now there was a decisive test.

For Luxemburg, above all, the events of 1905 revealed the pressing need for working-class unity, and she saw the slogans of Polish independence from Russia as divisive and utopian. She appeals to workers involved in the strikes in Poland to “understand today that by their participation in our and the Russian proletariat’s general movement in recent weeks, they are actually standing on the ground of social democracy. Today, the first duty for these workers is the same as the great task for all our working people—complete liberation from the influence of ­ruinous nationalism and open, sincere connection to the camp of pure class struggle for the common good of the Polish and Russian proletarians, the camp of social democracy”.17 The revolution not only shows the importance of unity, but also how national antagonisms, prejudices and inequalities can be overcome:

The present events in Russia have already given a clear lesson on the only way in which the national question in its modern form will be solved and can be solved. The current revolutionary rising of the proletariat in common is at the same time the first act in the process of fraternisation among the peoples of the Tsarist empire.18

Luxemburg hammers away at the PPS, which had always seen the Russian working class as backward. She celebrates the fact that these Russian workers, who she says the PPS wants to demonise, were being revealed as the leading ranks of world socialism:

The social patriots of the PPS were persistently and tirelessly trying to convince the Polish worker that the mass of Russian workers were mindless cattle who are accustomed to the yoke of bondage… The social patriots, blinded by their ­nationalistic position and petty-bourgeois chauvinism, have refused at all costs to acknowledge that the Russian proletariat is certain, with the certainty of iron necessity, to develop class consciousness and political struggle. Their entire programme of rebuilding Poland, all their political existence, is based on stagnant deadness in Russia.19

For those who think Luxemburg floated above party battles and internal faction-fights, this might all come as a revelation. In fact, it is a continuity of Luxemburg’s intense party building in Poland, which she combined with a strict inner regime and hostility to rivals. Eric Blanc notes:

In practice, the SDKPiL was certainly one of the least democratic socialist parties in the whole Tsarist empire… Instead of controlling local organisations, Luxemburg simply ignored them altogether. 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, thus opening them up to state repression.20

This aspect of Luxemburg’s methods does not fit with the picture of a kinder, gentler politics often ascribed to her. Imagine what would have been written if Lenin had dealt with his Mensheviks opponents by exposing their real names to the Okhrana, the Tsarist state’s secret police, meaning they might be arrested. We would be told that this revealed the Stalinist heart of Leninism. Instead, Luxemburg is feted by some anti-Bolsheviks as the ­exemplar of socialist democracy.

Far from pushing for socialist inclusion, Luxemburg drew strict lines of ­exclusion. In 1906, the PPS moved left, precisely as a result of the revolution. It expelled Józef Piłsudski’s putschist-nationalist tendency and even agreed to put on hold the demand for Polish independence in order to work more closely with the SDKPiL. Yet, Luxemburg continued to refuse to have anything to do with it.21

Another of the articles here lays down very clear lines about why Luxemburg thinks the party should not be a broad organisation:

How many accusations have fallen on the head of the “intransigent” Guesdists in France for rejecting the association with all the other socialist groups for decades! History has proved them right by showing that the strength of the socialist party does not lie in a plurality of members cobbled together, nor in rich coffers and an abundance of party wastepaper, but in the stability and clarity of its views in the compatibility and spiritual uniformity of the ranks—in the consequences of word and deed.22

This sounds like aspects of Leninism. My point is not to celebrate Luxemburg’s way of dealing with dissidents. It is that the full range of her writings from 1905 underscores that she was a hands-on battler for her interventionist, activist and openly revolutionary party.

There is a further fascinating hint of this wider argument right at the end of the second volume reviewed here. It comes from “Excerpts and Notes from Books and Studies on the English Revolution”. Having read about all the factional and party battles of that period in the 17th century, Luxemburg wryly comments:

Apparently, there can be no “parties” in social democracy anymore, because it represents only one class. That is only true for ideology. The theory is homogenous, based on class interest. Yet, reality has stratifications and phases in historical developments.23

This quote is complicated and capable of several interpretations. Is Luxemburg saying that there is a single revolutionary ideology but how it is implemented is different depending on the political organisation that does so? That would suggest that different political practices are not based on different ways of understanding the world. Alternatively, is she saying that “in theory” there is one ideology, but in practice there are different goals and visions of change? This was her position, at least for the arguments in the SDP, in Reform or Revolution, written in 1900. There she wrote:

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other and, at the same time, are reciprocally exclusive as the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

There is not one ideology; instead, there are actually several within the apparent unity of social democracy. Moreover, these ideologies are divergent and incompatible.

Whichever of these Luxemburg meant in her observations on the English Revolution, she was chafing at the idea of imposing a single political formation of the whole, undifferentiated working class.24 She adds that, within the working class, there are different layers, from those who are “an organisational member of civil society to its antipode”. This seems to be saying that parts of the working class accept, for at least most of the time, the constraints of capitalist society. However, there are other parts of the class that are capable of becoming the enemies of the existing society. There are also moments when the masses become capable of ideological and political leaps—and the party has to be the place for these pioneers within the working class.

Luxemburg insists the development of the working class is no linear process and requires a fighting party based on struggle and the self-organisation of the ­working class and its allies. She acclaimed the mass strikes for opening ­revolutionary ­possibilities—and for confirming her arguments inside the SPD. Nonetheless, she was fighting in a difficult environment, and the growing army of bureaucrats in Germany did not see the strikes in the same way. In May 1905, the Social Democratic Free Trade Unions held their fifth congress at Cologne and flatly rejected the use of the mass political strike—a demand inspired above all by the revolutionary events in Russia. Theodor Bömelburg, president of the construction workers’ union, attacked not only the SPD’s left wing but even Bernstein, the revisionist intellectual head of the party’s right. Bömelburg argued, “In order to expand our organisation, we need peace and quiet in the labour movement”.25 The resolution agreed by the trade union congress rejected the mass strike as a political tactic and warned honest proletarians “to avoid being hindered from the everyday work of strengthening the workers’ organisations by the ­adoption and promotion of such ideas”.

The Jena Congress of the SPD, which was convened in September 1905, adopted a resolution endorsing the use of the mass political strike in the fight for electoral and democratic rights; though, at the insistence of August Bebel, the party’s chairperson, this was categorised as a defensive tactic against the expected assault of the capitalist class on the mounting gains of the socialist movement. Finally, at a secret conference of the SPD executive and the General Commission of German Trade Unions, held in February 1906, the party pledged “to try to prevent a mass strike as much as possible”. If it should nevertheless break out, the SPD would assume the sole burden of leadership. The trade unions would refrain from participating in it officially, agreeing only “not to stab it in the back”.26

Such rotten politics, and a party leadership that increasingly adopted them, partly explain why Luxemburg did not immerse herself in the SPD’s day to day organisation. It would be to administer a class fraud. Equally, it is possible to see why she argued for a loose, non-centralised SPD in contrast to the methods she adopted as a leader in the SDKPiL. Strengthening the SPD leadership meant extending the ideology of reformist gradualism, rather than the insurgent power of the mass strike. Luxemburg argued boldly and bravely inside the party, but she did not challenge to take over its direction—and neither did she break from it. No other major revolutionary, including Lenin, demanded a split from the SPD until after it betrayed internationalism by backing imperialist slaughter at the start of the First World War. Still, it is hard to imagine Lenin playing such a back-seat role as Luxemburg. Moreover, this approach seems all the more damaging now we can read the brilliant analysis and precise organisational prescriptions she wrote in 1905.

Luxemburg and the content of the revolution

Luxemburg took up a strategic position within a major faultline that divided the international social-democratic movement. Russia was an autocracy that had not seen a capitalist revolution such as France in 1789. It had no real parliament and no democratic rights; moreover, the working class was a small minority. Mechanical Marxists therefore argued that the limits of any struggle would be to carry through a democratic revolution and that the task of the workers was to bolster the courage of the liberal capitalist class. As the veteran Marxist and then Menshevik Julius Martov argued in March 1905, “We have the right to expect that sober political calculation will prompt our ­bourgeois democracy to act the same that, in the past century, bourgeois democracy did in Western Europe, under the inspiration of revolutionary romanticism”.27

Leon Trotsky argued against Martov: “The revolution is moving the proletariat into the forefront and giving it hegemony. Only the proletariat can ensure victory for the uprising and the triumph of the revolution as a whole”.28 Trotsky saw that the rising capitalist class was too scared of the developing working class to launch an all-out war with the old order. Only the working class could do that. Moreover, he added that, having done so, the working class need not stop at implementing democratic reforms and the advances associated with bourgeois revolutions. Instead, based on their global connections and the social weight of their class, workers could take power themselves and then appeal for international revolution to achieve socialism.

Lenin, meanwhile, placed no reliance on the liberals to lead the revolution. Instead, at this time, he argued for a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” to implement a democratic, but non-socialist, revolution.

Luxemburg excoriated the liberals: “Russian liberalism has already shrunk to a dwarf, just as the proletariat swells increasingly like an avalanche, gathering its strength.” She contrasted how workers entering the struggle with a pack of fawning and backward ideas could nevertheless become revolutionary but the silver-tongued liberals would never break from the old order.

Thus, on the one hand, “The pleading knee-bending before the throne and the old wives’ chatter about the small blemishes that mar the beauty of this best of all possible worlds in which we live—that is the ultimate expression of liberal politics.” On the other, the workers’ humble petitions to the Tsar, such as the one that the demonstration on Bloody Sunday intended to present at the Winter Palace, were “a radical political programme clothed in the form of a touching patriarchal idyll”:

This is an exertion of class pressure of the most modern kind, but…decked out in the fantastic form of a colourful Bible-bangers’ procession, an “amen march”. It was precisely this contradiction between the revolutionary essence expressing the interests of the proletariat and the primitive outer coating, the illusory tale of the “good prince”, which was bound to end up with the flaming sparks of revolution in the streets as soon as it was tested against reality.29

So, Luxemburg is with Lenin and Trotsky over the bankruptcy of the ­liberals. However, she disagreed with Lenin because she believed that the peasantry is a diverse and unreliable group that cannot provide assistance to the working class. Moreover, she disagreed with Trotsky because she thought the revolution could not set itself socialist aims. Luxemburg insisted that the Russian working class was “not setting itself utopian or unreachable goals, such as the immediate realisation of socialism: the only possible and ­historically necessary goal is to establish a democratic republic and an ­eight-hour ­workday”. The working class “know quite well that the rule of socialism overnight is an impossibility—it knows that nothing other than a bourgeois constitutionalist state can come into being”.30

Luxemburg addressed these questions in a long essay written in Polish in 1908, “Lessons of the Three Dumas”, which has never previously appeared in English. By 1908, the situation in Russia had radically changed; the revolution was by then defeated. She surveyed its course, encouraging Marxists to “redouble their commitment to subjecting every detail of their tactics to self-criticism”. She did so by evaluating the history of the three Dumas—parliaments established in the Russian Empire from 1906 as a concession to the revolution, but with a restricted franchise that became progressively more biased in favour of the upper classes.31 She also speculated about the possible fate of a future revolution that, unlike the one in 1905, might succeed in overthrowing the old regime:

If the revolutionary proletariat in Russia were to gain political power, however temporarily, that would provide enormous encouragement to the international class struggle. That is why the working class in Poland and in Russia can and must strive to seize power with full consciousness. Because once workers have power, they can not only carry out the tasks of the current revolution directly—realising political freedom across the Russian state—but also establish the eight-hour working day, upend agrarian relations and, in a word, materialise every aspect of their programme, delivering the heaviest blows they can to bourgeois rule and in this way hastening its international overthrow.”32

Luxemburg adds that even under the banner of this bourgeois-democratic programme workers will be defeated—but that the struggle is worthwhile:

The revolution’s bourgeois character finds expression in the proletariat’s inability to stay in power and the inevitable removal of the proletariat from power by a counter-revolution of the bourgeoisie, rural landowners, the petty bourgeoisie and the greater part of the peasantry. It may be that in the end, after the proletariat is overthrown, the republic will disappear and be followed by the long rule of a highly restrained constitutional monarchy. It may very well be. Still, the relations of classes in Russia are now such that the path to even a moderate monarchical constitution leads through revolutionary action and the dictatorship of a republican proletariat.

The argument is that setbacks are going to happen—indeed, they are inevitable—but this is the only path to eventual success. It is impossible not to see a portent of 1919, when Luxemburg insisted that the fledgling German Communist Party had to be with the working class in the streets as it launched a doomed rising. She paid with her life when the Spartacist uprising in Berlin was crushed. She was right about that decision, but how tragic it is that this was the only possibility due to the lack of a more deeply rooted revolutionary organisation.


Are Luxemburg’s writings just (in that damning verdict) of great historical significance but utterly irrelevant to practical politics today?

Of course, you cannot simply apply her description of 1905 to what might happen in a big strike in 2023. That is partly because even enormous strikes by millions—such as those in France against president Emmanuel Macron’s assault on pensions—often take place in the context of guiding and constraining trade union and reformist leaderships. As Tony Cliff wrote:

Many mass strikes have little in common with Luxemburg’s description. Where the workers are highly organised in unions, the extent of their independence from the conservative trade union bureaucracy is largely a function of their confidence in facing the capitalists… The extent to which a strike is a product of rank and file initiative determines how near it is to the norm of the mass strike described by Luxemburg. Unfortunately, many people use Luxemburg’s analysis of the mass strike dogmatically, so that instead of comparing her concept with an actual mass strike, they use it to obscure instead of enlighten.33

However, Luxemburg reminds us brilliantly of the elemental power and raw strength of big strikes. With great confidence, I would advise socialists everywhere to read these books. Share them among yourselves, ask for them as a present, pester your library for them (and resist the temptation to scrawl all over them). Great slabby books can look intimidating, but do not be put off. Lots of the articles are just the right length for a bus or train journey or when you have time for half an hour’s reading. Discuss them and learn from them!

Postscript: a note on translation

I do not read Polish, and thus I am very grateful to the translators, whose work was essential to the production of these volumes. However, some issues are always raised by the act of translation. Let’s look, for example, at a passage in Luxemburg’s article “Liquidation (Part I)” and its description of the necessary attributes of revolutionary organisation. This is translated differently in the volumes under review and by Blanc in his article on Luxemburg’s factional struggles in Poland. Here is Blanc’s rendering:

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.34

Here is the same passage in the latest collection:

That the existence of an entirely class-based proletarian party, operating on a ­theoretical understanding of its activities, unaffected by tactical compromises, unbending in the application and defence of all of its views, untouched by any mixed or half-hearted shades of socialism, [depends on] the existence of a party that ­actually spreads its action and influence far beyond its own organisation and is constantly weighing other factions and shades of socialism upon the whole labour movement.

The Blanc version is easier to understand, does not have the intervention of square brackets, seems more internally coherent—and helps my argument more. Of course, this does not make it correct.

I asked a Polish comrade, Andy Zebrowski, to look at the two versions of the passage. He replied:

In my opinion, Blanc is better on the question of in what sense the organisation “weighs on/upon”. In his version, we are told it “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.” The sense is that it presses, exerts pressure on.

As we all know, “translation is interpretation”, but the new translation actually changes the meaning. Here the organisation “is constantly weighing other factions and shades of socialism upon the whole labour movement”. In the original, other factions and shades are not weighing on but rather are being weighed on.

However, the new translation offers a better alternative to Blanc’s formulation that the party “has an effect and impact far beyond its own organisation”. In the new version we read that the revolutionary organisation “actually spreads its action and influence”. This is a literal translation, but that is justified, especially because it uses the word “action”. The original Polish word translates as “activities” or “action”.

This shows the importance, pitfalls and political choices that translation contains. Big thanks to Andy.

Charlie Kimber is the editor of Socialist Worker and a co-author of The Labour Party: A Marxist History (Bookmarks, 2019).


1 Lenin, 1965. Emphasis in original.

2 Luxemburg, 2022a, pxiii.

3 A full account of the 1905 Revolution is available in Thomas, 2005.

4 This is an observation well made by Lori Turner at an online event hosted by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in January 2023. A video of the event is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ge6BEpuNhDA

5 Luxemburg, 2022a, p115.

6 Luxemburg, 2022b, pp210-211.

7 Luxemburg, 2022b, pxvii.

8 Luxemburg, 2022b, p222. Emphasis in original.

9 Luxemburg, 2022a, p53. At the time Luxemburg was writing this piece and all others in these volumes, “social democracy” referred to the orthodox Marxism of the Second International. This proclaimed the need for the revolutionary transformation of society, even though many of those associated with social democracy were dedicated more to social reform than revolution. For Luxemburg, however, “social democracy” meant a commitment to what she considered to be genuine Marxism.

10 Barker, 1996.

11 Luxemburg, 2022a, p109.

12 Luxemburg, 2022a, p81.

13 Luxemburg, 2022a, p55.

14 Luxemburg wrote beautifully and usually very clearly. However, she liked long sentences. It was not uncommon for her to use 70 or 80 words in a sentence. As editor of Socialist Worker I would tell her she needs to reach for the full stop and to resubmit her work. Part of the reason may be the structure of Polish and German, particularly at the start of the 20th century. Yet, there is also a difference between some of the articles here, written at a distance from struggle, and those addressed directly to people fighting class battles. Read, for example, “What are the Leaders Doing?” from 1919, a desperate plea in the middle of revolutionary tumult. The sentences are far shorter. Admirers should learn from Luxemburg politically, but not from some of her writing style. We should all remember that when average sentence length is 14 words, we understand more than 90 percent of what we read. At 43 words, comprehension drops to less than 10 percent.

15 Luxemburg, 2022a, p55.

16 Luxemburg, 2022a p125-126.

17 Luxemburg, 2022a, p118.

18 Luxemburg, 2022a, p118.

19 Luxemburg, 2022a, p113.

20 Blanc, 2017, p23.

21 Luxemburg, 2022b, pxix.

22 Luxemburg, 2022b, p344. Guesdists were followers of Jules Guesde, who was associated with the slogan “Building socialism and nothing but socialism!”. Luxemburg praises Guesde here, but elsewhere rightly criticised him for his narrow and sectarian refusal to oppose the antisemitic persecution of Alfred Dreyfus. See Kimber, 2023.

23 Luxemburg, 2022b, p460.

24 David McNally takes this up very well in the aforementioned Rosa Luxemburg Foundation video.

25 Gaido, 2008, p117.

26 Gaido, 2008, p119.

27 Cliff, 1989, p90.

28 Cliff, 1989, p89.

29 Luxemburg, 2022a, pp97-98.

30 Luxemburg, 2022b, p270.

31 See Luxemburg, 2022b, pxxix.

32 Luxemburg, 2022b, p392-393.

33 Cliff, 1985.

34 Blanc, 2017, p24.


Barker, Colin, 1996, “‘The Mass Strike’ and ‘The Cycle of Protest’”, Manchester Metropolitan University, https://tinyurl.com/35ss4dkc

Blanc, Eric, 2017, “The Rosa Luxemburg Myth: A Critique of Luxemburg’s Politics in Poland (1893–1919)”, Historical Materialism, volume 25, issue 4.

Cliff, Tony, 1985, “Patterns of Mass Strike”, International Socialism 29 (summer), www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1985/patterns/part1.htm

Cliff, Tony, 1989, Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917 (Bookmarks), www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1989/trotsky1

Gaido, Daniel, 2008, “Marxism and the Union Bureaucracy: Karl Kautsky on Samuel Gompers and the German Free Trade Unions”, Historical Materialism, volume 16, issue 4.

Kimber, Charlie, 2023, “The Dreyfus Case—A Setup That Fuelled a Crisis”, Socialist Worker (1 January), https://socialistworker.co.uk/features/the-dreyfus-case-a-setup-that-fueled-a-crisis

Lenin, Vladimir, 1965, “Notes of a Publicist”, Collected Works, volume 33 (Progress).

Luxemburg, Rosa, 2022a, The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, volume 3: Political Writings 1, On Revolution 1897-1905 (Verso).

Luxemburg, Rosa, 2022b, The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, volume 4: Political Writings 2, On Revolution: 1906-09 (Verso).

Thomas, Mark L, 2005, “The Birth of Our Politics: Marxists and the 1905 Revolution”, International Socialism 105 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/the-birth-of-our-politics-marxists-and-the-1905-revolution