Revolutionary Realism

Unpublished Rosa Luxemburg

Peter Hudis

[A new edition of Rosa Luxemburg’s writings, most of which have never appeared in English before, gives a unique perspective on her thought. Luxemburg believed that a socialist revolution would have to be democratic or else it would be doomed to failure.]

Generations of socialist thinkers and activists have grappled with the life and thought of Rosa Luxemburg. Yet there are many surprises still in store for those interested in her legacy, as seen in the recent publication of Volume Four of the English-language Complete Works. Along with the previously published Volume Three, the new collection brings together her writings on the 1905 Russian Revolution, one of the most important social upheavals of modern times.

Luxemburg’s analysis of 1905 in her pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions is already well known (and appears in Volume Four in a new translation). However, more than four-fifths of the material in the new volume, covering the period from 1906 to 1909, is appearing in English for the first time. Most of her writings that were originally composed in Polish—about half of the volume’s 550 pages—have never appeared in any other language.

Luxemburg, like most Marxists of her generation (as well as Karl Marx himself) held that a democratic republic with universal suffrage was the formation best suited for waging the class struggle to a successful conclusion. Like many of her contemporaries in the Second International, she saw no contradiction between fighting for democratic reforms within capitalism while reaching for a revolutionary transformation that would abolish capitalism—even as she relentlessly battled those who separated the two.

Rosa Luxemburg distinguished between forms of struggle employed in ‘peaceful’ as against those used in revolutionary periods.

In doing so, Luxemburg distinguished between forms of struggle employed in “peaceful” as against those used in revolutionary periods. The aim in both scenarios was to enhance the consciousness and power of the working class. However, “in peacetime, this struggle takes place within the framework of the rule of the bourgeoisie.” Luxemburg referred to this as “a sort of iron cage in which the class struggle of the proletariat must take place.” Hence, mass struggles in such periods “only very seldom attain positive results.” A revolutionary phase was very different, she argued:

Times of revolution rend the cage of “legality” open like pent-up steam splitting its kettle, letting class struggle break out into the open, naked and unencumbered... the consciousness and political power [of the proletariat] emerge during revolution without having been warped by, tied down to, and overpowered by the “laws” of bourgeois society.

For Luxemburg, the activity and reason of the masses during the 1905 Revolution, in which millions engaged in mass strikes aimed at bringing down the tsarist regime, was a clear example of such a moment. As she wrote in early 1906: “With the Russian Revolution, the almost-sixty-year period of quiet parliamentary rule of the bourgeoisie comes to a close.” The time had come for the socialist movement in Western Europe to begin to “speak Russian” by incorporating the mass strike into its political and organisational perspectives.

In the years since Luxemburg penned these words, numerous commentators have praised her efforts to push the rather staid social democratic parties in a more revolutionary direction, while others have criticised Luxemburg’s perspective on the grounds that it downplays the stark differences between the absolutist regime in Russia and Western liberal democracies. There are several points worth noting in this context.

Luxemburg held that the immediate task in the Russian Empire was the formation of a democratic republic under the control of the working class.

Firstly, Luxemburg held that the mass strike “is and will remain a powerful weapon of workers’ struggle,” but went on to stress that it was “only that, a weapon, whose use and effectiveness always depend on the environment, the given conditions, and the moment of struggle.” Secondly, she held that the Russian proletariat was “not setting itself utopian or unreachable goals, like the immediate realisation of socialism: the only possible and historically necessary goal is to establish a democratic republic and an eight-hour workday.”

In Luxemburg’s view, socialism could not be on the immediate agenda in Russia for two main reasons: the working class at the time constituted only a small minority of the populace of the Russian Empire (less than 15 percent), and it was impossible for socialism to exist in a single country:

The socialist revolution can only be a result of international revolution, and the results that the proletariat in Russia will be able to achieve in the current revolution will depend, to say nothing of the level of social development in Russia, on the level and form of development that class relations and proletarian operations in other capitalist countries will have achieved by that time.

In a lengthy essay addressed to the Polish workers’ movement, she further developed this point:

In its current state, the working class is not yet ready to accomplish the great tasks that await it. The working class of all capitalist countries must first internalise the aspiration to socialism; an enormous number of people have yet to arrive at an awareness of their class interests. ...When Social Democracy has a majority of the working people behind it in all the largest capitalist countries, the final hour of capitalism will have struck.

However, this did not mean that the Russian Revolution would be confined to a liberal or bourgeois framework. Much like Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik current—and in direct opposition to their Menshevik rivals—Luxemburg held that the immediate task facing revolutionaries in the Russian Empire was the formation of a democratic republic under the control of the working class. Since the liberal bourgeoisie was too weak and compromised to lead the revolution, “the proletariat had to become the only fighter and defender of the democratic forms of a bourgeois state.”

Yet the question remained: How could the workers maintain themselves in power in a democratic republic over the long haul if they constituted a minority of the populace? Luxemburg’s answer was that they could not—and yet the effort would still be worth it:

The revolution’s bourgeois character finds expression in the inability of the proletariat to stay in power, in the inevitable removal of the proletariat from power by a counterrevolutionary operation of the bourgeoisie, the 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. But 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.

Shortly before writing this, in an address to a Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, she made the following remarks:

‘I find that it is a poor leader and a pitiful army that only goes into battle when victory is already in the bag. To the contrary, not only do I not mean to promise the Russian proletariat a sequence of certain victories; I think, rather, that if the working class, being faithful to its historical duty, continues to grow and execute its tactics of struggle consistent with the unfolding contradictions and the ever-broader horizons of the revolution, then it could wind up in quite complicated and difficult circumstances. . . . But I think that the Russian proletariat must have the courage and resolve to face everything prepared for it by historical developments, that it should, if it has to, even at the cost of sacrifices, play the role of the vanguard in this revolution in relation to the global army of the proletariat, the vanguard that discloses new contradictions, new tasks, and new paths for class struggle, as the French proletariat did in the nineteenth century.

She did not shy away from acknowledging the implications of this argument:

‘Revolution in this conception would bring the proletariat losses as well as victories. Yet by no other road can the entire international proletariat march to its final victory. We must propose the socialist revolution not as a sudden leap, finished in twenty-four hours, but as a historical period, perhaps long, of turbulent class struggle, with breaks both brief and extended’.

This was a remarkable expression of revolutionary realism. Luxemburg was fully aware that even a democratic republic under the control of the working class—which is how she as well as Marx understood “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—was bound to be forced from power in the absence of an international revolution, especially in a country where the working class constituted a minority. And yet, even though the revolution would therefore have “failed” from at least one point of view, it would have produced important social transformations, providing the intellectual sediment from which a future uprooting of capitalism could arise.

In short, Luxemburg did not think that it made sense to sacrifice democracy for the sake of staying in power, since the political form required to achieve the transition to socialism was “thoroughgoing democracy.” If a nondemocratic regime stayed in power, the transition to socialism would become impossible, since the working class would be left without the means and training to exercise power on its own behalf. Yet on the other hand, if a proletarian democracy existed even for a brief period of time, it could help inspire a later transition to socialism.

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Vol 55, No. 20, Nov 13 - 19, 2022