1918: The revolution criticises its errors, Part 1

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Faced with all the conflicting arguments about the Russian revolution, it is difficult to steer an even course between the predominant view - that the revolution was a total disaster for humanity and inexorably led to the horrors of Stalinism - and the less fashionable but equally uncritical portrayals of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as superheroes who never made any errors. For our part, we follow the method of Rosa Luxemburg in her pamphlet The Russian Revolution: total solidarity with the October insurrection as the first step in the world revolution, but without the slightest hesitation to criticise the mistakes that were made by the Bolsheviks almost immediately after they came to power. What follows is the first section of an article originally published in International Review 99 in 1999, 4th quarter. This section focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of Luxemburg's pamphlet.

Rosa Luxemburg and the Russian revolution

Marxism is first and foremost a critical method, since it is the product of a class which can only emancipate itself through the ruthless criticism of all existing conditions. A revolutionary organisation that fails to criticise its errors, to learn from its mistakes, inevitably exposes itself to the conservative and reactionary influences of the dominant ideology. And this is all the more true at a time of revolution, which by its very nature has to break new ground, enter an unknown landscape with little more than a compass of general principles to find its way. The revolutionary party is all the more necessary after the victorious insurrection, because it has the strongest grasp of this compass, which is based on the historical experience of the class and the scientific approach of marxism. But if it renounces the critical nature of this approach, it will both lose sight of these historical lessons and be unable to draw the new ones that derive from the groundbreaking events of the revolutionary process. As we shall see, one of the consequences of the Bolshevik party identifying itself with the Soviet state was that it increasingly lost this capacity to criticise itself and the general course of the revolution. But as long as it remained a proletarian party it continuously generated minorities who did continue to carry out this task. The heroic combat of these Bolshevik minorities will be the main focus of the next few articles. But we will begin by examining the contribution of a revolutionary who was not in the Bolshevik party: Rosa Luxemburg, who, in 1918, in the most trying of conditions, wrote her essay The Russian Revolution, which provides us with the best possible method for approaching the errors of the revolution: the sharpest criticism based on unflinching solidarity in the face of the assaults of the ruling class.

The Russian Revolution was written in prison, just prior to the outbreak of the revolution in Germany. At this stage, with the imperialist war still raging, it was extraordinarily difficult to obtain any accurate information about what was happening in Russia - not only because of the material obstacles to communication resulting from the war (not to mention Luxemburg's imprisonment), but above all because from the very start the bourgeoisie did everything it could to hide the truth of the Russian revolution behind a smokescreen of slander and bloodthirsty fabulation. The essay was not published in Luxemburg's lifetime; Paul Levi, on behalf of the Spartacus League, had already visited Rosa in prison to persuade her that, given all the vicious campaigns against the Russian revolution, publishing articles criticising the Bolsheviks would add grist to these campaigns. Luxemburg agreed with him, and so sent the essay to Levi with a note saying "I am writing this only for you and if I can convince you, then the effort isn't wasted" (Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press, p 366). The text was not published until 1922 - and by then Levi's motives for doing so were far from revolutionary (for Levi's growing break with communism, see the article on the March Action in Germany in International Review no.93).

Nevertheless, the method of criticism contained in The Russian Revolution is entirely in the right spirit. From the very start, Luxemburg staunchly defends the October revolution against the Kautskyite/ Menshevik theory that because Russia was such a backward country, it should have stopped short at the "democratic" stage, showing that only the Bolsheviks were able to uncover the real alternative: bourgeois counter-revolution or proletarian dictatorship. And she simultaneously refutes the social democratic argument that formal majorities have to be obtained before revolutionary policies can be applied. Against this deadening parliamentary logic she praises the revolutionary audacity of the Bolshevik vanguard: "As bred-in-the bone disciples of parliamentary cretinism, these German Social-Democrats have sought to apply to revolutions the homemade wisdom of the parliamentary nursery: in order to carry out anything you must first have a majority. The same, they say, applies to revolution: first let's become a ‘majority'. The true dialectic of revolution, however, stands this wisdom of parliamentary moles on its head: not through a majority to revolutionary tactics, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority - that is the way the road runs.

Only a party which knows how to lead, that is, to advance things, wins support in stormy times. The determination with which, at the decisive moment, Lenin and his comrades offered the only solution which could advance things (‘all power in the hands of the proletariat and peasantry') transformed them overnight from a persecuted, slandered, outlawed minority whose leaders had to hide like Marat in cellars, into the absolute master of the situation" (ibid, p 374-5).

And, like the Bolsheviks, Luxemburg was perfectly well aware that this bold policy of insurrection in Russia could only have any meaning as a first step towards the world proletarian revolution. This is the whole significance of the famous concluding words of her text: "theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problems of the realisation of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism'" (ibid, p395).

And this solution was, in Luxemburg's mind, entirely concrete: it demanded that the German proletariat above all must fulfil its responsibility and come to the aid of the proletarian bastion in Russia by making the revolution itself. This process was under way even as she wrote, although her assessment, in this very essay, of the relative political immaturity of the German working class was also an insight into the tragic fate of this attempt.

Luxemburg was therefore well placed to develop the necessary criticisms of what she saw as the principal errors of the Bolsheviks: she judged them not from the detached heights of an "observer", but as a revolutionary comrade who recognised that these errors were first and foremost the product of the immense difficulties that isolation imposed on the Soviet power in Russia. Indeed, it is precisely these difficulties that required the real friends of the Russian revolution to approach it not with "uncritical apologetics" or a "revolutionary hurrah spirit", but with "penetrating and thoughtful criticism": "Dealing as we are with the very first experiment in proletarian dictatorship in world history (and one taking place at that under the harshest conceivable conditions, in the midst of the worldwide conflagration and chaos of the imperialist mass slaughter, caught in the coils of the most reactionary military power in Europe, and accompanied by the most complete failure on the part of the international working class), 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 perfection" (ibid p 368-9).

Luxemburg's criticisms of the Bolsheviks were focussed on three main areas:

1. the land question

2. the national question

3. democracy and dictatorship.


1. The Bolsheviks had won peasant support for the October revolution by inviting them to seize the land from the big landowners. Luxemburg recognised that this was "an excellent tactical move" But she went on: "Unfortunately it had two sides to it; and the reverse side consisted in the fact that the direct seizure of the land by the peasants has in general nothing at all in common with socialist economy...Not only is it not a socialist measure, it even cuts off the way to such measures; it piles up insurmountable obstacles to the socialist transformation of agrarian relations" (ibid, pp375-376). Luxemburg points out that a socialist economic policy can only start from the collectivisation of large landed property. Fully cognisant of the difficulties facing the Bolsheviks, she does not criticise them for failing to implement this straight away. But she does say that by actively encouraging the peasants to divide the land up into innumerable small plots, the Bolsheviks were piling up problems for later on, creating a new stratum of small property owners who would be naturally hostile to any attempt to socialise the economy. This was certainly confirmed by experience: though prepared to support the Bolsheviks against the old Czarist regime, the "independent" peasants later became an increasingly conservative weight on the proletarian power. Luxemburg was also very accurate in her warning that the division of the land would favour the richer peasants at the expense of the poorer. But it has also to be said that in itself the collectivisation of the land would be no guarantee of the march towards socialism, any more than the collectivisation of industry; only the success of the revolution on a world scale could have secured that - just as it could have overcome the difficulties posed by the parcellisation of the land in Russia.

2. Luxemburg's most trenchant criticisms concern the question of "national self-determination". While recognising that the Bolsheviks' defence of the slogan of "the right of peoples to self-determination" was based on a legitimate concern to oppose all forms of national oppression and to win to the revolutionary cause the masses of those parts of the Czarist empire which had been under the yoke of Great Russian chauvinism, Luxemburg showed what this "right" meant in practise: the "new" national units which had opted for separation from the Russian Soviet republic systematically allied themselves with imperialism against the proletarian power: "While Lenin and his comrades clearly expected that, as champions of national freedom, even to the extent of ‘separation', they would turn Finland, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic countries, the Caucasus etc into so many faithful allies of the Russian revolution, we have witnessed the opposite spectacle. One after another, these ‘nations' used the newly granted freedom to ally themselves with German imperialism against the Russian revolution as its mortal enemy, and, under German protection, to carry the banner of counter-revolution into Russia itself" (p 380). And she goes on to explain why it could not be otherwise, since in a capitalist class society, there is no such thing as the "nation" separate from the interests of the bourgeoisie, which would far rather subject itself to the domination of imperialism than make common cause with the revolutionary working class: "To be sure, in all these cases, it was really not the ‘people' who engaged in these reactionary policies, but only the bourgeois and petty bourgeois classes, who - in sharpest opposition to their own proletarian masses - perverted the ‘national right of self-determination' into an instrument of their counter-revolutionary class policies. But - and here we come to the very heart of the question - it is in this that the utopian, petty bourgeois character of this nationalistic slogan resides: that in the midst of the crude realities of class society and when class antagonisms are sharpened to the uttermost, it is simply converted into a means of bourgeois class rule. The Bolsheviks were to be taught to their own great hurt, and that of the revolution, that under the rule of capitalism there is no self-determination of peoples, that in a class society each class of the nation strives to ‘determine itself' in a different fashion, and that, for the bourgeois classes, the standpoint of national freedom is fully subordinated to that of class rule. The Finnish bourgeoisie like the Ukrainian bourgeoisie, were unanimous in preferring the violent rule of Germany to national freedom, if the latter should be bound up with Bolshevism" (ibid).

Furthermore, the Bolsheviks' confusion on this point (although it must be remembered that there was a minority in the Bolshevik party - in particular Piatakov - who fully agreed with Luxemburg's point of view on this question) was having a negative effect internationally since ‘national self-determination' was also the rallying cry of Woodrow Wilson and of all the big imperialist sharks who were seeking to use it to dislodge their imperialist rivals from the regions that they themselves coveted. And the whole history of the twentieth century has confirmed how easily the "rights of nations" has become no more than a cloak for the imperialist desires of the great powers and of their lesser emulators.

Luxemburg did not dismiss the problem of national sensitivities; she insisted that there could be no question of a proletarian regime ‘integrating' outlying countries through military force alone. But it was equally true that any concession made to the nationalist illusions of the masses in those regions could only tie them more closely to their exploiters. The proletariat, once it has assumed power in any region, can only win those masses to its cause through "the most compact union of revolutionary forces", through a "genuine international class policy" aimed at splitting the workers from their own bourgeoisie.

3. On "democracy and dictatorship" there are profoundly contradictory elements in Luxemburg's position. On the one hand there is no doubt that she falls into a real confusion between democracy in general and workers' democracy in particular - the democratic forms used in the framework and in the interest of the proletarian dictatorship. This is shown by her resolute defence of the Constituent Assembly, which the Soviet power dissolved in 1918, in perfect consistency with the fact that the very appearance of the latter had made the old bourgeois democratic forms entirely obsolete. And yet somehow Luxemburg sees this act as a threat to the life of the revolution. In a similar vein she is reluctant to accept that, in order to exclude the ruling class from political life, "suffrage" in a Soviet regime should be based primarily on the workplace collective rather than on the individual citizen's domicile (albeit her concern was also to ensure that the unemployed would not be excluded by this criterion, which was certainly not its intention). These inter-classist, democratic prejudices are in striking contrast to her argument that "national self-determination" can never express anything else than the "self-determination" of the bourgeoisie. The argument is identical as regards parliamentary institutions, which do not, whatever the appearance, express the interests of the "people" but of the capitalist ruling class. Luxemburg's views in this text are also totally at odds with the programme of the Spartacus League formulated soon after, since this document demands the dissolution of all municipal and national parliamentary type bodies and their replacement by councils of workers' and soldiers' delegates: we can only presume that Luxemburg's position on the Constituent Assembly - which also became the rallying cry of the counter-revolution in Germany - had evolved very rapidly in the heat of the revolutionary process.

But this does not mean that there is no validity to any of Luxemburg's criticisms of the Bolsheviks' approach to the question of workers' democracy. She was fully aware that in the extremely difficult situation facing the beleaguered Soviet power, there was a real danger that the political life of the working class would be subordinated to the necessity to bar the road to the counter-revolution. Given this situation, Luxemburg was right to be sensitive to any signs that the norms of workers' democracy were being violated. Her defence of the necessity for the widest possible debate within the proletarian camp, and against the forcible suppression of any proletarian political tendencies, was justified in light of the fact that the Bolsheviks, having assumed state power, were drifting towards a party monopoly that was to damage themselves as much as the life of the proletariat in general, particularly with the introduction of the Red Terror. Luxemburg did not at all oppose the notion of the proletarian dictatorship. But as she insisted "this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class - that is, must proceed 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 ( ibid, p 394).

Luxemburg was particularly prescient in warning of the danger of the political life of the Soviets being emptied out more and more as power became concentrated in the hands of the party: over the next three years, under the pressures of the civil war, this was to become one of the central dramas of the revolution. But whether Luxemburg was right or wrong in her specific criticisms, what inspires us above all is her approach to the problem, an approach that should have served as a guide to all subsequent analyses of the revolution and its demise: intransigent defence of its proletarian character, and thus criticism of its weaknesses and its eventual failure as a problem of the proletariat and for the proletariat. Unfortunately, all too often the name of Luxemburg has been used to pour scorn on the very memory of October - not only by those councilist currents who have claimed descent from the German left but who have lost sight of the real traditions of the working class; but also, and perhaps more importantly, by those bourgeois forces who in the name of "democratic socialism" use Luxemburg as a hammer against Lenin and Bolshevism. This has been the speciality of those who descend politically from the very forces who murdered Luxemburg in 1919 to save the skin of the bourgeoisie - the social democrats, particularly their left wing factions. For our part, we have every intention, in analysing the mistakes of the Bolsheviks and the degeneration of the Russian revolution, of remaining faithful to the real content of her method. CDW.

The second part of this article can be found here.

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