Rosa Luxemburg on socialism and the importance of the objective conditions

In general one of Rosa Luxembourg's most useful contributions was a good understanding of what socialism is. She argued that socialism didn't just entail a change in material conditions but also a change in relationships within society, that freedom was a prerequisite for a socialist society. In this way she differed from both Marx and Lenin and was closer to the anarchist idea of socialism then theirs. This conception of socialism lead her to see that there was an essential difference between a bourgeois revolutions (like the Jacobean French Revolution) and the socialist revolution, the difference being between attaining a society ruled by an minority and attaining a society ruled the majority. Furthermore she say how difference dictates the tactics of the revolution.

Early socialism arose at the same time and was much influenced by the science of the industrial revolution. At that time much of science was concerned with the idea of cause and effect, even the Theory of Evolution was seen as a series of steps leading to a higher life form. Application of this type of logic led socialists to have quite a rigid deterministic way of thinking.

Rosa, more in keeping with modern science, saw things more in terms of processes or developments. She argued that the struggle itself, the way in which any situation developed, had an important part in influencing the outcome.

This is the text of a talk given to a Workers Solidarity Movement meeting. As such it represents the authors opinion alone and may be deliberately provocative in order to encourage discussion. Also it may be in note form. Still we hope you find it useful. Other talks are here
In the meeting on the North G. raised the point that the answer to the question "Does the end justify the means" is vital to an understanding of socialism and how to get to it.

The anarchist position is often caricatured that we're squeamish about the means used so we believe the ends achieved are tainted. On the contrary we argue that the means used play a part in creating the end that is achieved.

Objective and Subjective

Classic Marxism, states, and we'd agree with it that there are two components to historical processes the subjective and the objective.

The objective things are those factors which we have no influence over, like the state of the economy, drought, low level of industrialisation. Subjective things are things under humans influence, such as whether to go on strike or not, whether to vote for the labour party or to join a revolutionary organisation. With good objective and subjective conditions revolution is possible.

Example of objective and subjective conditions

For example the rise of the Feminist movement in the sixties occurred because both the objective and subjective conditions were satisfied. Objectively there was a growth in the economy, capitalism needed women to enter the workplace. Subjectively women writers like Kate Millet, Betty Friedman and Germane Greer were making feminist arguements. Simone De Bueavoir wrote the Second Sex in the 1950's, but it wasn't until the sixties when conditions were ripe that it became popular.

Example of subjective conditions influencing final outcome

What Rosa Luxembourg's did was to argue that the subjective element was as important as the objective in defining what the final outcome would be.

An analogy would be with teaching a language. To educate a child you need books, schoolroom, pen and paper (objective elements) and a teacher (subjective element). If the teacher forces the child to learn off lists of grammar and vocabulary, the likely hood is the child won't be able to string a useful sentence together, however if the teacher encourages the child to hold conversations and discuss things in French the child is more likely to be able to communicate. The way in which the language is taught determines the outcome. (similarly if the objective conditions aren't supplied, if its cold and the roof leaks, the child isn't going to learn much either)

As I said we argue that the means used play a part in creating the end that is achieved.

In the example of the Russian revolution the objective conditions were the civil war, the poorly developed industrial base and the fact that it was a highly agricultural country. These are the reasons cited by Leninists and Trotskist for the failure of the Russian Revolution. The objective conditions were the policy of the Bolshevik party and the actions of the working class. Rosa argued that the way the revolution was conducted would enviably affect its outcome. She said "it is clear that socialism by it's very nature can not be decreed......The negative, the tearing down, can be decreed; the building up, the positive can not"

On Russia and socialism she said,

Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois class rule. social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc. No one knows this better, describes it more penetratingly; repeats it more stubbornly than Lenin. But he in completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconian penalties, rule by terror-all these things are but palliatives. The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralises.

When all this is eliminated, what really remains? In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representatives of the labouring masses. But with the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads to the leading and an elite of the working class in invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously- at bottom, then a clique affair-a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat however, but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is the rule of the Jacobeans (the postponement of the Soviet Congress from three month periods to six month period!) Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutizaltion of public life; attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages etc..

These are ideas she had first outlined in her 1905 pamphlet "Organisational questions of the Russian Social Democracy"

Leninist or Marxism

The pamphlet was written in 1905 in response to Lenin's proposal to introduce democratic centralism method of organisation. She points out that Russia is very different from Germany. There is much more state repression bourgeois democracy doesn't even exist. She poses the problem as how to create a Social Democratic movement when the state is not yet in the hands of the bourgeoisie. While in the west the ruling class has introduced the idea of political "solidarity" to the working class, this is not the case in Russia.

Minority rule

The question she said that must be answered by the new party in Russia is what degree of centralisation is necessary? The Jacobeans, the Blanquises didn't rely on mass struggle, on proletarian involvement so they could be conspiratorial. It is possible for a small number of conspirators to follow rigid plans made before an event. However, in contrast the socialist organisation must work with the working class. It is not possible to separate from the working class, they must work together. While the party can educate the masses and give them the skills the need to defeat capitalism, it can not train or prepare the masses for the exact eventualities that occur. The problems that will be thrown up by revolutionary situations can only be dealt with as they occur, not before hand.

Furthermore, the influence the party has on the masses varies from time to time. This last point is an import one as it recognises there is a difference between the party and the masses. It reminds me of a discussion that A. had recently with T.. T. was asking why we didn't call for victory for the EZLN. A. was explaining that besides not knowing what the EZLN called for, we wouldn't call for victory for a particular party, we'd call for victory for the working class. Although, at the moment, perhaps all the peasants in the Chiapa's support the EZLN, two or three months down the road they may change alliance to some other organisation. This is why the party and the class are never the same thing.

Social Democratic Centralism

Rosa argues that socialist democratic centralism, which is the rule of the majority within its own party, can only exist if two criteria are fulfilled.

Firstly there exists a layer of highly politicised workers, this she calls the vanguard.

Secondly, there is the possibility of creating politicised workers through campaigning. This condition can only be satisfied where political liberty exists. It is only under these conditions that you can have "social democratic centralism".


Lenin disagrees with these conditions.

Rosa argues that when calling for discipline within the party he confuses the process of obeying orders with the process of efficient self organisation. Discipline in Lenin's terms means that the does not mean that the party members respond to the authority of the central committee rather than to the authority of the ruling class.

Lenin says that because of the conditions that exist in Russia it is necessary for the central committee to provisionally take control of the party until such time as the working class is sufficiently developed to take control of it. Rosa says that this is not possible. Indeed after Oct 1916, following his own logic Lenin should have opened the party to democracy when in practice he did the opposite.

Rosa argues that all the tactical advances of the Russian social revolutionaries arose when there were involvement in periods of struggle rather then from the leadership. She says that the problem of divorcing the leadership from the struggle is that the leadership tends to caution or opportunism.

She says

"the unconscious comes before the conscious. The logic of the historic process comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historic process. The tendency is for the directing organs of the socialist party to play a conservative role"

One good example of this is the line the SWM adopted during the X case. On the first march, while the crowd were chanting "right to choose" the SWM refused to join in, and carried posters saying "Right to Choose for 14 year old rape victims". Obviously the leadership had misjudged and found themselves behind public opinion.

We have always argued that ideas come out of action the two cannot be divorced. This is why we see our involvement in campaigns is important in it's own right, we don't see our involvement in campaigns just in terms of finding recruitable people.

A funny example of how divorced the leadership can be from the struggle and how unquestioning the rank and file can be of this is the claim by an Irish member of the Sparts last week that contraception was unavailable in the Republic (it is).

Anarchists also believe that the creation of a central commitee divides the party in to order givers and order takers, into those who create political policy and into those who carry it out into the thinkers and the paper sellers. It stifles initiative that it vital to the creation of revolution. It encourages absorption of the political line rather than political development. It creates a passive membership rather than an active one.

Rosa said

"the ultra-centralism asked by Lenin is full of sterile spirit of the overseer. It is not a positive and creative spirit. Lenin's concern is not so much to make the activity of the party more fruitful as to control the party-to marrow the movement rather than to develop it, to bind rather than unify it."

An example of the this can be seen in the varying responses to fighting fascism in Germany and Spain. Both countries had huge left wing organisations opposed to fascism. In Spain the Anarchist method of organisation encouraged self-activity, development of independent thought and education towards taking the political initiative and Franco's invasion lead to massive uprisings throughout the country. In Germany, the centralism of the communist party lead to a rank and file that incapable of reacting to the fascist treat, and so when Hitler came to power he was virtually unopposed.

[The following section was not discussed in the branch meeting as it would have made my speech too long.


Lenin was proposing democratic centralism as a way of guarding against opportunism and Rosa spends some time discussing this threat and Lenin's idea that democratic centralism is way of preventing opportunism.

Lenin's argues that opportunism arises from leanings of intellectuals towards decentralisation and disorganisation. He says that it is only intellectuals that are fiercely individualistic and dislike central control in contrast the working class feel at home under iron discipline and strict leadership.

Rosa counters that the proletarian preferal for leadership and distrust of intellectuals is not necessarily for Marxist reasons citing among her examples the distrust the English trade unionist has for "socialist visionaries".

She agrees that intellectuals tend to opportunism but argues that you cannot separate this social phenomenon from its "Historic soil". What she means is that there are objective reasons for the subjective tendency of intellectuals to become opportunist.

An intellectual who becomes a socialist is separated from his own class. If he also becomes separated from the working class (as when he enters parliament) he looses his grounding in social reality and so is likely to vacillate all over the place. She argues that this is less likely to happen with proletarians as it is more difficult for them to separate themselves from their class. She also points out that the parliamentarian attracts the political careerist and the bourgeoisie parliamentary politician by its very nature needs opportunist politics.]

In Russia opportunism arises as product of backward political conditions . Wherever it arises it uses what ever means of action best suits its needs be it decentralisation or centralisation. At the initial stage of the labour movement centralisation suits it therefore the idea that opportunism can be prevented via democratic centralism is flawed.

The answer to the problem doesn't lie in excluding members of the bourgeoisie as the revolution will by necessity include all who oppose capitalism.

Opportunist elements can be kept in line if the Social Democracy (by which she means the party, plus the trade unions, plus the masses, the left in general) contains a strong politically educated working class nucleus and enforces a measure of party discipline. However a greater corrective force would be a strong working class majority.

The Russian Revolution

In July 1916 Rosa Luxembourg was arrested and was held in 'protective custody' until November 1918. Two months after her release she was murdered by the German Social Democrats.

In the summer of 1918 while in prison she wrote a article on the Russian Revolution, which her friends asked her not to publish arguing that to openly criticise the revolution would aid the white forces who were opposing Russia. When she refused she was visited by her friend and comrade Paul Levi who persuaded her to change her mind. She agreed not to publish but the discussion convinced her that she had to clarify her position. She started work on a longer article which was never fully completed.

After her death Clara Zetkin brought from Moscow a recommendation from Lenin that Rosa's collected work should be published but also that the manuscript on Russia should be burnt. Zetkin alleged that Jogiches (Rosa's sometime companion and comrade) told her that she had a change of heart before she had died. Since both of them were dead there was no way to confirm the claim. Zetkin wrote to Paul Levi to ask him to refrain from publishing the disputed manuscript . Levi replied that he was not interested in what "Radek says" or "Zinovjev says" or "Bukharin says" a clear indication that all three had pressed Zetkin to prevent the publication. Levi wrote in response to her request

"Myself, I wonder whether we were right to keep silent so long.. In certain questions Rosa was in opposition to the Bolsheviks .. and these are precisely the questions that the course of the Russian Revolution has pushed to the forefront"

In the end Clara Zetkin published a book arguing that Rosa and Lenin didn't have any major political differences while Levi published Rosa's pamphlet with an introduction almost as long arguing the opposite.1

It's interesting to note that The Russian Revolution was written in Jail in 1918 at the time when Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, actually in Russia, refused to criticise it. The pamplet contains three main sections; the first criticising the Bolsheviks land policy, the second criticising their slogan on the 'right to self determination' of nations and the third criticising the suppression of democracy in Russia.

[The following section is not in the speech as it would have been to long to read.

The Russian Revolution

Right to Self determination of Nations

She opposed the Bolshevik slogan on the Right to Self determination of Nations arguing that under capitalism the slogan supports the right of the bourgeoisie to rule the nation. She didn't believe the Bolsheviks could win a vote (plebiscite) on integration with Russia as the bourgeoisie can always use a nationalism to mask the real interests of the working class.

She doesn't discuss the possibility of the revolutionary masses overthrowing their own bourgeoisie and forcing support for a union. Because it implemented the slogan on the Right to Self determination of Nations, she opposed the Brest-Livtosk treaty. She said it changed a socialist struggle into a nationalist one and gave justification and support to the nationalist. She said this is particularly true in the case of the Ukraine which never had a national government or council and had only a very small nationalist movement which was given more credence by Lenin than it deserved.

She said that W.W.I in Germany and other countries was supported by the argument that they were fighting in defence of small nations. This idea of 'defence of small nations' was an ideological shied used to justify imperialist expansion and the Bolshevik slogan had the effect for giving further support for the imperialist exercises.]

Constituent Assembly

She has an interesting quote from Trotsky on the Constituent Assembly in which he says that the October revolution represented

"The salvation of the Constituent Assembly.... And when we said that the entrance to the Constituent Assembly could not been reached through the Preliminary Parliament of Zertelli, but only through the seizure of power by the Soviets, we were entirely right"

Rosa takes the Bolsheviks to task for proclaiming that they were fighting for the Constituent Assembly and then once they had power for dissolving it.

She opposed the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. She says, that if it is true as the Bolsheviks argued that it no longer represented the mood of the country, that the people had moved on since then, that the Bolsheviks should have elected a new one. She believed that massive public pressure would force politicians to respond to the changing wishes of the people.

She didn't seem to see there was a difference between direct democracy and representative democracy.

She also argues that every social institution makes mistakes and its only through popular involvement that the short comings of social institutions can be corrected. By suppressing democracy, the Bolsheviks prevent this corrective force from operating.

She says the Bolsheviks rejected universal suffrage in favour of the Soviets; The problem with this that it denies the right to vote to those who don't work. She argues that the high level of unemployment in Russia excludes people from participating in the revolution.

The problem of dictatorship

The main thrust of her argument in this excellent section is that socialism requires mass participation to succeed. To ensure mass participation there must be political training, education, free exchange of ideas and debate. Dictatorship prevents this process from occurring.

She also makes the argument, which is also made by Anarchists that it isn't possible to prescribe exactly how the revolution is going to progress before it happens. She argues that there is no set of textbook rules that can be followed in order to introduce socialism. Socialism can not be built be decree, by orders from the top down. It can only be created by mass involvement in public life. Political repression stifles debate and involvement until inevitably the bureaucrats end up with political power instead of the proletariat.

The struggle against corruption

In this section she considers the question of how to deal with the Lumpenproletariat, which she defines as gangsters, racketeers, petty criminals, crooks etc. She says they arise as capitalist society degenerate and act as an enemy and instrument of counter revolution. She points out that terror is a two edged sword. Its use can lead to arbitrariness which depraves society. She concludes that the only way the problem can be tackled is through "kindling of revolutionary idealism".

I think this is also the only way to deal with the peasants.

Democracy or Dictatorship

She says the basic problem with both the Social Democrats and with the Bolsheviks is that the counterpoise dictatorship with democracy.

She has a strange definition of dictatorship of the proletariat, Anarchists would have little problem following her definition. She says that the revolution should be

" a dictatorship, but a dictatorship of the class, not a party or of a clique-dictatorship of the class, that means in the broadest public form on the basis of the most active, unlimited participation of the mass of the people, of unlimited democracy"

"this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class- that is it must be produced step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence; subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.

Central to the Leninist conception of the Dictatorship of the proletariat is that the party is the same thing as the class, therefore dictatorship by the party equates with dictatorship by the class. Anarchists argue the opposite. The party and the class are not synomous, and it is the class that must lead. The role of the Anarchist organisation is to attempt to influence the class, to convince them of our idea's, to give them guidance, the benefit of our experience. Ultimately however the final decision on which direction to take, on weather to follow our advice or not must always be with the class.

It seems to me that though the logic of her arguments would place her in the Anarchist camp, she is keen to remain allied to Marxism, so she redefines her terms. She isn't the last one to do this. The Anarchist Workers Group did this also. The adopted the term vanguard but said the used it to mean 'leadership of idea's" as opposed to 'leadership by the party'. The used terms such as political committee, cadre organisation etc, all which have precise Leninist meanings but they redefined the terms to suit themselves.

We argue against this practice. At best it is confusing, at worse it is simply serves to mask disagreements and also implies an alliance with Leninism which may not exist. It dilutes the very fundamental differences that exist between the authoritarian and the anti-authoritarianism. Redefining the terms used doesn't alter the reality that very different forms of struggle are been advocated.

She finishes by congratulating the Bolsheviks for being the first to attempt the socialist revolution. She excuses the Bolsheviks mistakes saying the are a product of the objective circumstances and warns the Bolshevils of making a virtue out of necessity (which is exactly what they did). Finally she wonders is it really possible to have a sucessful revolution in Russia at all considering the objective situations and warns future socialists against useing the Russian model which is flawed as a template for future revolutions.

Talk given to the Dublin WSM branch by Aileen O'Carroll

September 1994

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