1903-1904: the birth of Bolshevism, Lenin and Luxemburg

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In the previous article in this series, we saw how the future Bolshevik, Trotsky, had failed to grasp the significance of the birth of Bolshevism, siding with the Mensheviks against Lenin. In this article, we look at how another great figure of the left wing of social democracy, Rosa Luxemburg – who in 1918 was to declare that “the future everywhere belongs to Bolshevism” – also used her considerable polemical skills to support the Mensheviks against the so-called ‘ultra-centralism’ personified by Lenin.

Rosa Luxemburg’s response to Lenin’s One Step Forward was published in Neue Zeit (and the new Iskra) under the title ‘Organisational questions of Russian social democracy’.  This work has subsequently been published under the title ‘Leninism or marxism’ and (often through selective quoting) has served as a reference point for councilists, anarchists, left social democrats and other ‘anti-Leninists’ for many decades.

In fact, it was not at all Rosa’s intention to place Lenin outside of marxism or the workers’ movement, however strong her criticisms of him were: they were offered in the spirit of vigorous but fraternal polemic. The article displays none of the personal tone contained in Trotsky’s texts of the same period.

Furthermore, Luxemburg begins by affirming the positive contribution made by Iskra prior to the Congress, in particular its consistent advocacy of the need to go beyond the phase of the circles “The problem on which Russian social democracy has been working during the last few is years is the transition from the dispersed, quite independent circles and local organisations, which corresponded to the preparatory and primarily propagandistic phase of the movement, to a form of organisation such as is required for a unified political action of the masses throughout the whole state.

Since, however, the most prominent trait of the old form of organisation, now grown unacceptable and politically outmoded, was dispersion and complete autonomy, or the self-sufficiency of the local organisations, it was quite natural that the watchword of the new phase of the preparatory work for the larger organisation should become centralism. The emphasis on centralism was the leitmotif of Iskra in its brilliant three-year campaign for preparing the last really constituent party congress, and the same thought dominated the entire 1903-4: the young guard of the party”.

And yet Luxemburg had few hesitations in siding with the Mensheviks in the dispute that arose during the Second Congress. Thus the rest of the text is a critique of the “ultra-centralist wing of the party”, led by Lenin.

There are various factors which could be invoked to explain this: certainly there were differences of approach and theory between Luxemburg and Lenin, especially on the key issue of class consciousness, which we will return to. Luxemburg, as well, had already clashed with Lenin on the national question, which may have predisposed her to argue against his method – she believed that his thinking was often rigid and scholastic. In particular, Luxemburg was, as the text shows, already grappling with the question of the mass strike and the spontaneity of the working class. Lenin’s insistence on the limitations of spontaneity must have seemed totally counter-productive, especially as she herself was faced with a real battle within the German party in defence of spontaneous mass action and against the rigid, bureaucratic view of the social democratic right wing and the trade union leaders, who feared the uncontrolled upsurge of the masses more than they feared capitalism. As we shall see, some of her polemic tends to project the experience of the German party onto the situation in Russia, which certainly led her to misinterpret the real significance of the divergences in the RSDLP.

Finally, we cannot discount the problem of a certain conservatism about authority. We have seen this in Trotsky’s reactions to the split. The Mensheviks had, in fact, been very quick to conduct a personalised campaign against Lenin with the aim of winning the German party to their positions: “The question is how to beat Lenin…Most of all, we must incite authorities like Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg against him” (cited by Peter Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, OUP, 1969, p193) And there is no doubt that Kautsky and other German ‘leaders’ were swayed by the idea that Lenin was little more than an ambitious upstart. When Lyadov came to Germany to explain the Bolshevik case, Kautsky told him: “look, we do not know your Lenin. He is an unknown quantity for us, but we do know Plekhanov and Axelrod very well. It is only thanks to them that we have been able to obtain any light on the situation in Russia. We simply cannot just accept your contention that Plekhanov and Axelrod have turned into opportunists all of a sudden” (ibid). At this stage, Luxemburg’s polemic within the German party had been directed mainly at the openly revisionist wing led by Bernstein; she may have had her doubts about the ‘orthodox’ leadership, but she still saw it as an ally against the right, and may well have been influenced by this view of the split in Russia, based not on real political analysis but on a false ‘confidence’ in the old guard of the RSDLP. Later on, she would recognise the German leadership’s own slide into opportunism, not least on the question of the mass strike and the spontaneity of the class.

Be that as it may, Luxemburg, like Trotsky, seized on Lenin’s phrases in One Step Forward about Jacobinism (the revolutionary social democrat, Lenin had said, is “the Jacobin inseparably linked with the organisation of the class-conscious proletariat”), to argue that his “ultra-centralism” appears to be a regression to outmoded approaches to revolutionary activity, inherited from an immature phase of the workers’ movement: “To support centralisation in social democracy on these two principles – on the blind subordination of all party organisations and their activity, down to the last detail, to a central authority which alone thinks, acts and decides for all, and on a sharp separation of the organised nucleus of the party from the surrounding revolutionary milieu, as championed by Lenin – appears to us therefore as a mechanical carrying over of the organisational principles of the Blanquist movement of conspiratorial circles into the social democratic movement of the working masses”    Like Trotsky, she rejects Lenin’s appeal to the proletarian discipline of the factory as a counter to the gentlemanly anarchism of the intellectuals: “The ‘discipline’ which Lenin has in mind is impressed upon the proletariat not only by the factory, but also by the barracks, and by the modern systems of bureaucracy, in short through the whole mechanism of the centralised bourgeois state”.

Luxemburg opposes Lenin’s view of the relationship of party to class with the following passage, whose significance we will return to in due course: “As a matter of fact, however, Social Democracy is not linked to or connected with the organisation of the working class, but is the movement of the working class itself. Social Democratic centralism must therefore be of an essentially different nature from that of the Blanquist. It can be nothing other than the over-riding general will of the enlightened and fighting vanguard of the workers as contrasted with the individual will of its different groups and individuals; it is, so to speak, a ‘self-centralism’ of the leading elements of the proletariat and their majority rule within their own party organisation” 

The combat against opportunism

Luxemburg also takes issue with Lenin’s explanation of opportunism and the methods he advocates to oppose it. She argues that he overemphasises the role of the intellectuals as a principal source of the opportunist trend in social democracy, and thus detaches the danger from its historical background. She accepts that opportunism may be strong amongst the academic element in the western parties, but she sees this as inseparable from the influences of parliamentarism and the reform struggle, and more generally the historic conditions in which social democracy is working in the west. She also notes that opportunism is not necessarily tied either to decentralisation or centralisation as forms of organisation, precisely because it is characterised by its lack of organisational principles. In fact, Luxemburg goes further than this, stressing that in the early phases of its life, in the face of conditions of economic and political backwardness, the opportunist trend in the German party, the Lasalle wing, favoured ultra-centralism over the Marxist Eisenach tendency - the implication being that in backward Russia opportunism would also be more likely to identify itself with the same ultra-centralising zeal.

Echoing an intervention by Trotsky at the Second Congress, Luxemburg argues that while precise rules and statutes are all very necessary, they can hardly act as a guarantee against the development of opportunism, which is a product of the very conditions in which the struggle of the working class is fought out: the tension between the necessity to struggle for its daily self-defence, and the historic goals of its movement. Having thus posed the problem in the broadest historical framework, Luxemburg feels free to make fun of Lenin’s supposed notion that “rigorous paragraphs on paper” can, in the battle against opportunism, make up for the absence of a revolutionary proletarian majority in the party. In the final analysis, neither the strictness of the central organs, nor the best party constitution, can replace the creativity of the masses when it comes to maintaining a revolutionary course against the temptations of opportunism. Hence her oft-quoted conclusion to the article: “let us say openly, that mistakes made by a really revolutionary working class movement are, historically, infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the most excellent ‘central committee’” 

Lenin’s reply to Luxemburg

Lenin responded to Luxemburg in ’One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, reply by N Lenin to Rosa Luxemburg’, written in September 1904 and submitted to Neue Zeit. Kautsky however refused to publish the article and it was not published at all until 1930. Lenin welcomes the intervention of the German comrades into the debate, but regrets the fact that Luxemburg’s article “does not acquaint the reader with my book, but with something else” (Lenin, Collected Works, volume 7, op cit, p 472). Since he considers that Luxemburg has entirely missed the point in her polemic, he does not engage with her in a discussion about the general issues raised by it, but sticks to a restatement of the principal facts surrounding the split. He quietly thanks Rosa for “explaining the profound idea that slavish submission is very harmful to the party” (p474), but points out that he is not an advocate of a particular form of centralism, but simply defends “the elementary principles of any conceivable system of party organisation” (p 472) – the issue posed by the RSDLP Congress being not slavish submission to a central organ, but the domination of a minority, a circle within the party, over what should have been a sovereign Congress. He also shows how qualified was his use of the Jacobin analogy, which had in any case been frequently employed by Iskra and by Axelrod in particular. To make a comparison between the divisions in the proletarian party and the divisions between right and left wings in the French revolution, he insists, is not to argue that there is an identity between social democracy and Jacobinism. By the same token he waves aside the charge that his model of the party is based on the capitalist factory: “Comrade Luxemburg declares that I glorify the educational influence of the factory. That is not so. It was my opponent, not I, who said that I pictured the Party as a factory. I properly ridiculed him and proved with his own words that he confused two different aspects of factory discipline, which, unfortunately, is the case with Comrade Luxemburg to” (p 474). In fact, the squeamishness shown by both Trotsky and Luxemburg about the phrase ‘factory discipline’ obscures an important element of truth in Lenin’s use of the term. For Lenin, the positive aspect of what the proletariat learns through the ‘discipline’ of factory production is precisely the superiority of the collective over the individual – the necessity, in fact, for the association of the workers and the impossibility of the workers defending themselves as disparate individuals. It is this aspect of ‘factory discipline’ which has to be reflected not only in the general organisations of the working class, but also in its political organisations, through the triumph of the party spirit over the circle spirit and the gentlemanly anarchism of the intellectuals. 

This leads on to Lenin’s central point: that Rosa’s critique of opportunism is far too general and abstract. Of course she is right to identify its fundamental roots in the historic conditions of the class struggle; but opportunism takes many forms and the specific Russian forms that manifested themselves at the Congress was an anarchist revolt against centralisation, a reversion by a part of the old Iskra group to views which it had come to the Congress to settle scores with in the first place, above all, the positions of the specifically Russian brand of Bernstein’s “the movement is everything, the goal nothing” – Economism. It is noticeable that Rosa remains silent on these questions, which is why Lenin devotes the second part of his article to providing a succinct account of how this relapse took place.

Lenin brushes aside Luxemburg’s “grandiloquent declamation” about the impossibility of fighting opportunism with rules and regulations “in themselves”; statutes cannot have such an autonomous existence, but they are nonetheless indispensable weapons for waging the combat against concrete manifestations of opportunism. “Never and nowhere have I talked such nonsense as that the party rules are weapon ‘in themselves’” (p 476). What Lenin does advocate is the conscious defence of the party’s own organisational principles, and the necessity for these principles to be codified in unambiguous statutes. This distinctive task of revolutionaries cannot be replaced by abstract appeals to the creative struggle of the masses to overcome the opportunist danger.

Class consciousness and the party

As we have said, Lenin chose not to go into some of the deeper issues posed in Rosa’s text: her errors on class consciousness and her identification between party and class, but it is necessary to deal with them briefly here.

In Luxemburg’s argument, the questions of class consciousness, centralism, and the relationship of party and class are inextricably connected.

The paucity of the most important presuppositions for the full realisation of centralism in the Russian movement at the present time may, to be sure, have a very baneful effect. Nevertheless it is false, in our opinion, to believe that the majority rule of the enlightened workers within their party organisation, although as yet unattainable, may be replaced ‘temporarily’ by an assigned autocracy of the central authority of the party, and that the hitherto undeveloped public control on the part of the working masses over the acts and omissions of the party organs would be just as well replaced by the opposite control of the activity of the revolutionary workers by a central committee.

The history of the Russian movement itself furnishes many examples of the dubious value of centralism in this latter sense. The central committee with its almost unlimited authority of interference and control according to Lenin’s idea would evidently be an absurdity if it should limit its power to the purely technical side of the social democratic activity, to the outer means and accessories of agitation – say, to the supplying of party literature and suitable distribution of agitational and financial forces. It would have a comprehensible political purpose only if it were to employ its power in the creation of a unified fighting tactic and in arousing great political action in Russia. What do we see, however, in the phases through which the Russian revolution has already passed? Its most important and fruitful tactical turning points of the last decade were not by any means ‘invented’ by appointed leaders of the movement, and much less by leading organisations, but were in each case the spontaneous product of the unfettered movement itself.

This was so in the first stage of the genuine proletarian movement in Russia, which began with the elemental outbreak of the great St Petersburg strike in 1896 and which for the first time had inaugurated the economic mass action of the Russian proletariat. Similarly, the second phase, that of the political street demonstrations, was opened quite spontaneously as a result of the student unrests in St Petersburg in March 1901. The further significant tactical turning point, which opened up new horizons, was the mass strike which broke out ‘all of itself’ in Rostov-on-Don, with the ad hoc improvised street agitation, open air meetings, public addresses – things which the boldest blusterer among the Social Democrats would not have ventured to consider a few years earlier. In all these cases, in the beginning was ‘the deed’. The initiative and conscious leadership of the social democratic organisations played an exceedingly small role. This was not, however, so much the fault of defective preparations of these special organisations for their role, even though this factor may have been a considerable contributing cause, and certainly not of the lack at that time, in the Russian Social Democracy, of an all-powerful central committee in accordance with Lenin’s plan. On the contrary, such a committee would in all probability only have had the effect of making the indecision of the various party committees still grater, and of creating dissension between the storming masses and the procrastinating Social Democracy.

The same phenomenon, the small part played by the conscious initiative of the party leadership in the shaping of tactics, is still more observable in Germany and elsewhere. The fighting tactic of Social Democracy, at least as regards its main features, is definitely not ‘invented’, but is the result of a progressive series of great creative acts in the course of the class struggle which is often elemental and always experimenting. Here also the unconscious precedes the conscious, the logic of the objective historical process precedes the subjective logic of its carriers. The role of the social democratic leadership is one of an essentially conservative character, in that it leads to working out empirically to its ultimate consequences the new experience acquired in the struggle and quickly converting it into a bulwark against a further innovation in the grand style”.

The historical development of the communist programme has often taken the path of polemic between revolutionaries, of fierce debate between different currents within the movement. This has certainly been so in the case of the debates between Lenin and Luxemburg. On the national question, for example, it is Luxemburg who provides the fundamental framework for understanding the role of national struggles in the imperialist epoch, often in opposition to Lenin’s attachment to formulae left in abeyance from the previous epoch. And yet during the test of fire of the first world war, it was Lenin who articulated the clearest answer to all concessions to patriotism with his slogan “turn the imperialist war into a civil war” and Luxemburg who, in the Junius Pamphlet, weakened the clarity of her own arguments by toying with the idea of a ‘proletarian’ form of national defence.

When we look at the debate on organisation at the beginning of the century, we can see similar twists and turns of the dialectic. The long passage just quoted contains much that would form the backbone of her brilliant text The Mass Strike, the Party and the Trade Unions, which analyses the conditions of the class struggle in the newly-dawning historical epoch. Luxemburg, sooner than any other revolutionary of the day, saw that in this period, the proletariat would be compelled to develop its tactics, methods, and organisational forms in the heat of the struggle itself; they could not be planned in advance or organised down to the last detail by the revolutionary minority or indeed by any pre-existing organism. In 1904 she had already advanced towards these conclusions by observing recent mass movements in Russia; she would be vindicated even more definitively by the strikes and uprisings of 1905. True to Luxemburg’s diagnosis, the movement of 1905 was a general social explosion in which the working class went almost overnight from humble petitions to the Czar to mass strike and armed insurrection; equally consistent with her standpoint, the revolutionary vanguard often found itself lagging behind the movement. In particular, when the proletariat spontaneously discovered the form of organisation appropriate for the epoch of proletarian revolution – the workers’ councils, the soviets – many of those who thought they were applying Lenin’s theory of organisation reacted at first by demanding that these creations of unpredictable workers’ spontaneity either adopt the Bolshevik programme or dissolve, forcing Lenin himself to fulminate against the rigid formalism of his fellow Bolsheviks, to defend the necessity for both the soviets and the party. What further proof could there be of the tendency of the ‘revolutionary leadership’ to play a conservative role? And let us recall that Luxemburg’s battle to convince German social democracy of the importance of spontaneity was directed above all at the right wing of the party concentrated in the parliamentary fraction and the trade union hierarchy, who could not even conceive of a struggle that was not rigidly pre-planned and directed by the party/union Zentrum. Small wonder that she tended to see Lenin’s centralism as a ‘Russian’ variant of this bureaucrat’s vision of the class war.  

And yet - exactly as we saw with Trotsky’s polemic - for all Luxemburg’s insights, there are two key flaws in this passage, flaws which confirm that, on the question of the revolutionary organisation, of its role and position within the mass upsurges of the new epoch, it was Lenin and not Luxemburg who had grasped the essentials.

The first flaw is connected to an oft-quoted sentence in the passage we have cited: “the unconscious precedes the conscious, the logic of the objective historical process precedes the subjective logic of its carriers”. This is of course the case as a general historical proposition; as Marx put it, man makes his history, but not in conditions of his own choosing. Hitherto, he has been at the mercy of the unconscious forces of nature and of the economy, which predominate over his conscious volition and ensure that all his best-laid plans have very different outcomes from those which he had intended. And for the same reasons, humanity’s understanding of its own position in the world remains under the sway of ideology – of myths, evasions and illusions perpetually reproduced by its own divisions, both at the individual and the collective level.  In short, the unconscious necessarily precedes and dominates the conscious. But this approach ignores a fundamental characteristic of man’s conscious activity: its capacity to see ahead, to mould the future, in short, to submit the unconscious powers to his deliberate control. And with the proletariat and the proletarian revolution, this fundamental human characteristic can for the first time come to fruition. The proletariat is the class of consciousness, the class which, to emancipate itself, can and must reverse Luxemburg’s formula and subject the whole of social life to its conscious control. True this can only be fully realised in communism, when the proletariat will have dissolved itself; true that in its most elemental struggles for self-defence, its consciousness is no less elemental. But this does not alter the fact that it has a tendency to become more and more conscious of its historic goals, which implies the development of a consciousness that is able to foresee and shape the future. This domination of the conscious over the unconscious can only reach full flower in communism, but the revolution is already a qualitative step towards it. Hence the absolutely indispensable role of the revolutionary organisation, which has the specific role of analysing the lessons of the past in order capacity to foresee, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, “the general line of march of the proletarian movement”, in short, to point the way towards the future.

Luxemburg, trapped in an argument which made it necessary to emphasise the domination of the unconscious, sees the role of the organisation as essentially conservative: to preserve the acquisitions of the past, to act as the memory of the working class. But while this is clearly vital, its ultimate purpose is anything but ‘conservative’: it is to anticipate the real direction of the future movement and actively influence the process leading towards it. Examples from the history of the revolutionary movement are not lacking. It was this capacity, for example, which enabled Marx to understand why humble, limited, even apparently anachronistic skirmishes such as those fought by the Silesian weavers in a semi-feudal Germany were indicators of the future class war, the first tangible evidence of the revolutionary nature of the proletariat. We could equally point to the decisive intervention of Lenin in April 1917, who, even against the conservative elements ‘leading’ his own Bolshevik party, was able to announce and thus prepare for the coming revolutionary confrontation between the Russian working class and the ‘democratic’ Provisional Government. It was this tendency in Luxemburg’s approach to reduce consciousness to a passive reflection of an objective movement that led the Gauche Communiste de France – who were certainly not afraid to take Luxemburg’s side against Lenin on other crucial issues, such as imperialism and the national question – to argue that Lenin’s approach to the problem of class consciousness was more precise than that of Rosa:

Lenin’s thesis of ‘socialist consciousness injected into the workers by the Party’ in opposition to Rosa’s thesis of the ‘spontaneity’ of the coming to consciousness, engendered during the course of a movement departing from the economic struggle and culminating in a revolutionary socialist struggle, is certainly more precise. The thesis of ‘spontaneity’, with its democratic appearance, reveals at root a mechanistic tendency towards rigorous economic determinism. It is based on a cause and effect relationship, with consciousness as merely an effect, the result of an initial movement, ie the economic struggle of the workers which gives rise to it. In this view, consciousness is see a, fundamentally passive in relation to the economic struggles which are the active factor. Lenin’s conception restores to socialist consciousness and the party which materialises it their character as an essentially active factor and principle. It does not detach itself from life and the movement but is included within it” (Internationalisme no. 38, ‘Sur la nature et la function du parti politique du proletariat’. The comrades of the GCF abstain here from criticising the polemical exaggerations in Lenin’s argument – its Kautskyite side which sees socialist consciousness as the literal creation of the intelligentsia. Despite the fact that much of this text is taken up with rejecting the substitutionist/militarist conception of the party, criticising Lenin’s mistakes about class consciousness was obviously secondary for them at this point. This is because the fundamental issue was to emphasise the active role of class consciousness against any tendency to reduce it to a passive reflection of the immediate resistance struggles of the workers.

A further error in Luxemburg’s remarks about the inherently conservative tendency of the party leadership is that it fails to place it in its proper historical context, thus virtually turning it into an original sin of all centralised organisations (a sentiment which would certainly be shared by the anarchists). Luxemburg, we saw earlier, correctly argued that the roots of opportunism must be sought in the most basic conditions of the proletariat’s life within bourgeois society. It follows that, since all proletarian political organisations must operate inside this society, they are therefore subject to the perpetual pressure of the dominant ideology; that there is an ‘unchanging’ danger of conservatism, of opportunist adaptations to immediate appearances, of resistance to making the challenging advances demanded by the evolution of the real movement. But it is certainly insufficient to leave this observation here. To begin with, we must emphasise that this danger is by no means limited to the central organs and can just as easily manifest itself among the local branches. This was clearly the case in the German SPD, where certain regions (such as Bavaria) were notoriously ‘permeable’ to various expressions of revisionism. Secondly, the opportunist menace, though permanent, is stronger in certain historical conditions than others. In the case of the Communist International, it was without doubt the decline of the revolutionary wave and the isolation of the proletarian regime in Russia which reinforced the threat to the point where it irreversibly condemned its parties to degeneration and betrayal. And in the period in which Luxemburg is elaborating her polemic against Lenin, the growing conservatism of the social democratic parties was precisely the reflection of definite historical conditions: capitalism’s epochal shift from its ascendant to its decadent phase, which while not yet completed, was already revealing the inadequacy of the old forms of class organisation, both general (the trade unions) and political (the ‘mass’ party). In these circumstances any serious critique of the conservative tendencies in social democracy would have to have been accompanied by a new conception of the party. The irony here is that Luxemburg’s analysis of the new forms and methods of the class struggle prepared the ground for such a new conception, as we already pointed out in the first article in this series. This was especially true of the Mass Strike pamphlet which stresses the role of political leadership which the party has to play within the mass movement. Indeed, the profound hostility it incurred from the ‘orthodox’ party centre was in itself proof that the old social democratic forms were tied to methods of struggle that were utterly unsuited to the new epoch. But it was Lenin who supplied the missing piece of the jigsaw by insisting on the need for a “revolutionary party of a new type”. This theoretical leap by Lenin was by no means fully elaborated, and we know only too well that the old social democratic conceptions continued to haunt the movement well into the epoch of wars and revolutions. But the fact remains that his brilliant intuition surged from the depths of the new reality:  that the old mass parties could not, by definition, play the role of politically orienting the revolutionary struggle of the working class, any more than the trade unions could provide its general organisational framework.

The party is not the class

Time and again, Luxemburg’s polemic against Lenin blurs the distinction between the party leadership, the party as a whole, and the class as a whole. In particular, the argument that it is the masses themselves (or the ‘masses’ within the party) who must lead the struggle against conservatism and opportunism is a generalisation which skates over the indispensable role of the organised political vanguard in this struggle. At the root of this argument is the false identification between party and class which we cited earlier on: “Social Democracy is not linked to or connected with the organisation of the working class, but is the movement of the working class itself”.

It is true that social democracy, the proletarian political fraction, group or party, is not something outside the class movement, that it is an organic product of the proletariat. But it is a particular and unique product; any tendency to merge it with the ‘movement in general’ is harmful both to the political minority and to the movement as a whole. In certain circumstances the erroneous identification between party and class can be used to justify substitutionist theories and practise: this was a marked tendency in the phase of the decline of the revolution in Russia, when some of the Bolsheviks began to theorise the idea that the class should unquestioningly submit to the directives of the party (in reality, the party-state), because the party could not but represent the real interests of the class in all circumstances and conditions. But in Luxemburg’s polemic against Lenin, we are looking at the symmetrical error, in which the particular life and tasks of the political organisation are lost in the mass movement - precisely what Lenin was opposing in his fight against Economism and Menshevism. Indeed, Luxemburg’s opposition to Lenin’s “sharp separation of the organised nucleus of the party from the surrounding revolutionary milieu,” her insistence that “an absolute dividing line cannot be erected between the class-conscious kernel of the proletariat already organised as a party cadre, and the immediate popular environment which is gripped by the class struggle”, could only, in the circumstances of the debate going on at the time, give succour to Martov’s argument that it would be perfectly fine for “every striker to declare himself a social democrat”. And as we pointed out in the previous article, the most important danger facing revolutionaries at this moment was not, as Trotsky was arguing, substitutionism, but its anarchist, ‘democratist’, Economist twin.

Thus Rosa Luxemburg – who would be attacked again and again as an ‘authoritarian’ within the SPD and the Polish social democracy precisely because of her consistent defence of centralisation – was at this particular moment in history swayed by the ‘democratic’ backlash against Lenin’s rigorous advocacy of organisational centralisation. Thus Rosa, who was at the heart of the struggle against opportunism within her own party, was to identify the ‘wrong’ wing as the source of the opportunist danger in the Russian party. History would not take long – less than a year in fact - to prove Lenin right in seeing the Mensheviks as the real crystallisation of opportunism in the RSDLP, and Bolshevism as the expression of the “revolutionary proletarian trend” in the party. But that will have to examined in a future article. 

Amos