Rosa Luxemburg and the question of ‘Socialist Democracy’

PRATYAY BANERJEE

The Russian Revolution of 1917 is a landmark in the history of working class’ movement striving to establish a society, free from all kinds of oppression. With the fall of the Soviet regime during the 1990s, and along with many other political changes worldwide, a group of historians are determined to deprecate its role as an exemplary one for the struggle of the oppressed people all over the world. We must not forget that the Russian Revolution turned out to be an inspiring one for the freedom fighters during the colonial rule. However, more than a nostalgic attitude towards the history of the Soviet Union, it is also a requirement of the time that we should try to critically analyse this historical event, and also try to find out – what really went wrong in Russia?

Musing on the history of the Russian Revolution, which was indeed a proletarian revolution, as the working class there, asserted its political power through the Soviets and the Factory Committees, one question that needs raising is how, and from when, this proletarian dictatorship was gradually substituted by a party dictatorship; and finally by the will of a handful of party elites, nowadays popularly named as State bureaucrats?

It is this question which indulged me to go through the writings of Rosa Luxemburg, the eminent German Communist leader, who was assassinated in 1919. Her article on the Bolshevik Revolution entitled The Russian Revolution, a text, which was posthumously published[i], is an attempt to critically view the course of the Russian Revolution, which finally substituted dictatorship of the proletariat, with the dictatorship of the party. Rosa Luxemburg was quite aware of the hostile situation that this nascent socialist state was facing during that period of time. The October Revolution faced the challenges of a series of counter revolutionary attacks; and also hostile role of many European nations including Great Britain; countries that provided military support to these attempts of raging a counter revolution against the Bolsheviks. Rosa was quite aware of this impending situation, and was convinced that the Bolsheviks were compelled to take many repressive measures, which were in nature opposed to the idea of proletarian dictatorship. This has been emphatically pointed in The Russian Revolution

            …it would be a crazy idea to think that every last thing done or left undone in an experiment with the dictatorship of the proletariat under such abnormal conditions represented the very pinnacle of perfections(7).

 She had no doubt that the party of Lenin ‘was the only one which grasped the mandate and duty of a truly revolutionary truly revolutionary party and which, by the slogans –“All powers in the hands of the proletariat and peasantry”—insured the continued development of the revolution’(The Russian Revolution 14).

However, Rosa did not end here, and in an emphatic tone questioned the dangerous tendency of concentrating all powers in the hands of the communist party, and also theorising it as a prescription for the nations, where this revolution was yet to take place—

The danger begins only when they (Lenin & Trotsky) make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by those fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics (39).

Rosa’s emphasis was on the spontaneous participation of the workers’ movement. This is in contrast to the excessive domination of the Communist party, which Russia had been witnessing during that time. . She upheld the idea of a revolutionary body governed and guided by the workers themselves, and not being dictated by the party elites. Workers must be allowed to learn from their mistakes, Rosa emphasized in another of her article entitled “Organizational Questions of Social Democracy”, included in theSelected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg. In the concluding section of this writing, Rosa Luxemburg has emphatically expressed her view that the ‘working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn the dialectic of history’. For Rosa, ‘the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee’ (125).

The advocacy for organising workers’ councils, which will be empowered to oppose the party to dominate, and will enable the masses to carry out their action persistently, has also been advocated by Anton Pannekoek, a Dutch astronomer and Marxist, in his article entitled Party and Working Class. This article was written in 1936. It is not possible to state whether or not he had gone through Rosa’s writing. However, the commonality in the argument, i.e., emphasizing on workers’ spontaneous participation, which is a contrast to the dominance of party, can never be ignored. Following is a passage from the above mentioned text, which can hammer home this point of similarity—

The present workers’ parties are of an absolutely different character. Besides, they have a different objective: to seize power and to exercise it for their sole benefit. Far from attempting to contribute to the emancipation of the working class, they mean to govern for themselves, and they cover this intention under the pretence of freeing the proletariat. Social Democracy, whose ascendant period goes back to the great parliamentary epoch, sees this power as government based on a parliamentary majority. For its part, the Communist Party carries its power politics to its extreme consequences: party dictatorship (Party and Working Class).

In sharply contrast to this emergence of a regimented party, Anton Pannekoek has argued that the kind of party/organisation that can truly serve the cause of the proletariat should not have firm and fixed structures. According to Pannekoek, ‘the importance of these parties or groups resides in the fact that they help to secure this mental clarity through their mutual conflicts, their discussions, and their propaganda’. It is by means of these organs of self-clarifications in which ‘the working class can succeed in tracing for itself the road to freedom’ (Party and Working Class).

It must be remembered that Pannekoek was writing this text in 1936, at a time, when much of degeneration and authoritarian changes in Russia had already taken place. It diluted the revolutionary nature of the Bolshevik party that existed in 1917/1918, a time, when Rosa was looking critically at the course of the Bolshevik revolution.  Hence, no doubt, in Pannekoek’s arguments, the criticism against the Stalinist party (though he never mentions of Stalin) is more poignant. Rosa on other hand faced the historical task of upholding the nascent Bolshevik state; again at the same time, warn against the tendencies of authoritarianism, which has been rightly pointed out in her writings.

Contemplating on the course of the history of the Bolshevik movement, and also, trying to trace how gradually a truly workers’ Soviet was substituted by the organised Communist party, which eventually dictated all movements of the workers in Russia, I am also tempted to refer to Alexandra Kollontai’s The Workers Opposition, another writing, also representing a voice of dissent, like those of Luxemburg and Pannekoek. From the Forward of the 1st edition of this text, published by Search, we come to know that The Workers’ Opposition was written in Russian by Alexandra Kollontai in 1921. As a thesis on the question of Trade Union, it was submitted at the 10th Congress of the Communist Party of Soviet Union[i]; and the theses were published by the Pravda in 1921. However, at the 10th Congress, a resolution was adopted in favour of banning all fractions and the Workers’ Opposition too was soon outlawed. It is a widely known fact that during the time of October Revolution in 1917, different kinds of popular organisations existed in Russia, and served as a platform for the cause of the Bolshevik revolution. John Reed in the introduction of his seminal text has given an account of the different ‘popular organisations which were quite active during 1917’ (23-25). These were the soviets, the factory-shop committees, trade unions etc. The idea of transference of all power to the Soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants was advocated by Lenin on the eve of the October Revolution. Challenging the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks desire to prolong the Cadet Ministers of the Cadet government, Lenin propagated the need for transference of Power to the Soviets, as he believed that it would be democratic and would create the rule of the majority—

How then, can anyone oppose the transfer of all power in the state of the Soviets? Such opposition means nothing but renouncing democracy! It means no more no less than imposing on the people a government which admittedly can neither come into being nor hold its ground democratically, i.e., as a result of truly free, truly popular elections(All power  to the Soviets!).

  Sadly at time when Alexandra Kollontai was writing The Workers’ Opposition, bureaucratic activities within the State and the party had reduced the power of these workers’ organisations and had stifled the spontaneous self-activity of the proletariat in creating a Communist economy. It was just the opposite of what Lenin had propounded the creation of the rule of majority by transferring all power to the Soviet. This has been emphatically pointed out by Kollontai. Her thesis entitled “The Workers Opposition is truly an ardent appeal to the party leadership against this growing bureaucracy within the party that according to Kollontai, was the root of the evil Kollontai believed that it was taking away that spontaneous activity of the working class during the post-revolutionary period—

Bureaucracy is a scourge that pervades the very marrow of our Party as well as of the Soviet institutions….Restrictions on initiative are imposed, not only on to the activity of the non party masses (this would only be a logical and reasonable condition, in the atmosphere of the civil war)—‘the initiative of party members themselves is restricted. Every independent attempt, every new thought that passes through the censorship of our centre, is considered as ‘heresy’, as a violation of Party discipline… (44).

Thus, a close reading of these three texts, those of Luxemburg, Kollontai and Anton Pannekoek can well illumine how this process of substitution took place in Russia, i.e., taking off all power from the factory committees and trade unions and also from the soviets, which had been the platform for the working class during the October Revolution, and empowering only the Communist Party as the sole decision making authority.

Coming back to our previous issue, i.e., Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of the Bolshevik Revolution, the more important question that needs asking is what alternative political structure Rosa upholds in her writings.

To my opinion, in Rosa’s thesis, it is revolutionary democracy that forms the axis of her arguments. The objective of the Socialist revolution, according to Rosa Luxemburg is to conquer political power, and to ‘create a socialist democracy’ that will replace bourgeois democracy, and certainly will not ‘eliminate democracy altogether’ (The Russian Revolution 38). This Socialist Democracy, as Rosa coins in her pamphlet, is not antithetical to the idea of dictatorship of the proletariat, but is complementary to it. This has been emphatically voiced in The Russian Revolution. At the ending section of this text,   Rosa has rightly pointed out this dictatorship must not be the work of ‘a minority in the name of a class’; rather, it should engage and incorporate ‘the active participation of the masses’ (34).

As noted earlier, Rosa was aware of the danger of the German occupation that the Bolsheviks were facing at that time. Many repressive measures taken by the Bolsheviks were out of the necessity to save the Soviet, she believed. However, she did not hesitate to warn Lenin and his comrades that they were making ‘a virtue of necessity’ and were actually recommending the working class’ movement worldwide a formula, which actually were the tactics, which the Bolsheviks were compelled to take, meeting the challenges of a civil war (39).

A century has passed since both Rosa and Karl Leibknecht, her comrade were arrested from an apartment of Berlin and were murdered brutally on 15th January, 1919. Both of them were buried in the Friedricsfelde central cemetery in eastern Berlin.[ii] On 15th of January this year, ignoring the snow and rainfall, about 10,000 left leaning people marched to the cemetery and paid their homage to the memory of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Leibknecht. The graves of both of them were covered with red rose petals. In Kolkata also, Search, a left publishing house organised a seminar on the contribution of Rosa Luxemburg in the history of international movement.

Sadly, for from the expectations of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Leibknecht of an upheaval of a global revolution, we are witnessing worldwide, the rise of ultra-nationalists and fascist forces. This is clearly threatening the minimum democratic rights that we are even enjoying today. Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas are still inspiring for us to safeguard democracy and social justice. We cannot but remind of her clarion call to uphold in all political systems, freedom of expression and other democratic rights, without which, she believed socialism could not be sustained—

…it is a well-known and indisputable fact that without a free and untrammelled press, without the unlimited right of association and assemblage, the rule of the broad masses of the people is entirely unthinkable (The Russian Revolution 32)


[i] The Workers Opposition was an earnest prayer to the Central Committee to stand against bureaucracy and to provide the workers the freedom to participate spontaneously. We have also mentioned that following the 10th Congress the workers opposition was banned. In other cases, this annoyance against the authoritarian role of the Communist Party faced a violent protest as in the case of Kronstadt Rebellion of the mariners, a mutiny that took place in 1921. For further reading refer to Ante Cilliga’s The Kronstadt Revolt, an article, included in the www.marxist.org.

[ii] www.the guardian.com

                                                         Works Cited

Cilliga, Ante. The Kronstadt Revolt. www.marxist.org. Web. 20 July 2019.

Kollontai, Alexandra. The Workers’ Opposition. Kolkata: Search. 2013. Print.

“Germany remembers Rosa Luxemburg 100 years after her murder”. The Guardian. 15 January, 2019. Web. 18 July 2019.

Lenin, . I. All power to the Soviet!Lenin Collected Works. Vol.25. pp.155-156.www. marxist.org. Web. 30 August 2019.

Luxemburg, Rosa.  The Russian Revolution. Kolkata: Search. 2013. Print.

—.  Selected Writings. Kolkata: Search. 2015. Print.

Pannekoek, Anton. Party and Working Class. www.marxist.org.Web.  19July 2019.

Reed, John. Ten Days that Shook the World. Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books Ltd. 1970. Print.

2 thoughts on “Rosa Luxemburg and the question of ‘Socialist Democracy’”

  1. The democratic tradition is far older than socialism and unless the left accepts it and builds on it by further radicalising that tradition, we will not be freed of the monstrosities of socialism

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *