Paul Mattick (Biography)

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Luxemburg versus Lenin


Source: Anti-Bolshevik Communism. Paul Mattick, published by Merlin Press, 1978;

Transcribed: by Andy Blunden, for 2003;
Proofed and corrected: by Geoff Traugh, July 2005.

Rosa Luxemburg as well as Lenin developed from the Social Democracy, in which both played important roles. Their work influenced not only the Russian, Polish and German labour movement, but was of worldwide significance. Both symbolised the movement opposed to the revisionism and reformism of the Second International. Their names are inseparably entwined with the re-organisation of the labour movement during and after the World War, and both were Marxists to whom theory was at the same time actual practice. Energetic human beings, they were – to use a favourite expression of Rosa Luxemburg’s – ‘candles that burned at both ends’.

Though Luxemburg and Lenin had set themselves the same task the revolutionary revival of the labour movement sunk in the swamps of reformism, and the overthrow of capitalist society on a world-wide scale – still in their striving toward this goal their ways diverged; and although they always retained respect for each other, they nevertheless remained at odds on decisive questions of revolutionary tactics and on many questions of revolutionary principle. It may be stated here in advance that on many essential points the conceptions of Luxemburg differ from those of Lenin as day from night, or – the same thing – as the problems of the bourgeois revolution from those of the proletarian. All attempts of inconsistent Leninists, from political considerations, to reconcile Lenin with Luxemburg now that both are dead and to erase the opposition between them, in order to derive advantage from both of them, is merely a silly falsification of history which serves no one but the falsifiers and them only temporarily.

The thing that united Luxemburg and Lenin was their common struggle against the reformism of pre-war time and the chauvinism of the Social Democracy during the war. But this struggle was at the same time accompanied by the dispute between the two regarding the road which leads to revolution; and since tactic is inseparable from principle, by a dispute regarding the content and form of the new labour movement. Even though it is well known that both were mortal enemies of revisionism, and for this reason their names are often mentioned in the same breath, on the other hand it is extremely difficult today to form a real picture of the differences between them. To be sure, the Third International has, in the course of the last decade, in connection with its inner political crises, frequently used and abused the name of Rosa Luxemburg, especially in its campaigns against what it refers to as ‘counter-revolutionary Luxemburgism’, but neither has Luxemburg’s work become better known thereby, nor have the differences which she had with Lenin been clarified. In general, it is regarded as better to let the past lie buried; and just as the German Social Democracy once refused – “for lack of money”6 – to publish the works of Luxemburg, so also has the promise (through Clara Zetkin) of the Third International7 to publish those works been broken. Still, wherever competition arises against the Third International, Rosa Luxemburg comes into favour. Even the Social Democracy is often tasteless enough to speak lovingly and sorrowfully of the ‘erring revolutionary’ who is mourned rather as a victim of her “impetuous nature”8 than of the bestial brutality of the mercenaries of party-comrade Noske. And even where, after the experience with both Internationals, people profess to be concerned not only with building a new and really revolutionary movement but also at the same time want to profit by the lessons of the past, the concern with Luxemburg and Lenin goes no farther than the reduction of their oppositions to the dispute over the national question and even here almost exclusively to the tactical problems with reference to Polish independence. In this enterprise, pains are taken to make this opposition as mild as possible, to isolate it, and to close with the assertion, contradicting all the facts, that Lenin emerged victorious from this conflict.

The dispute between Luxemburg and Lenin on the national question cannot be dissociated from the other problems on which the two were at odds. This question is bound up in the closest manner with all others affecting the world revolution and is but a single illustration of the fundamental difference between Luxemburg and Lenin, or of the difference between jacobinical and the truly proletarian idea of the world revolution. If, like Max Shachtman9, one holds Luxemburg’s conception to be confirmed as against the nationalistic adventures of the Stalin period of the Third International, it must also be regarded as justified in opposition to Lenin. However much the policy of the Third International may have changed since Lenin’s death, on the national question it has remained truly Leninist. A Leninist must of necessity take a position opposed to Luxemburg; he is not only her theoretical opponent, but her mortal enemy. The Luxemburg position involves the destruction of Leninist Bolshevism, and therefore no one who appeals for authority to Lenin can at the same time lay claim to Rosa Luxemburg.

Opposition to Reformism

The development of world capitalism, the imperialistic expansion, the advancing monopolisation of economy and the super-profits with which it was bound up, made possible the transitory formation of an aristocracy within the labour movement, the enactment of social legislation and a general improvement of the workers’ standard of living, and all this in turn led to the spread of revisionism and to the development of reformism in the labour movement. Revolutionary Marxism was rejected as opposed to the facts of capitalist development, and in its place the theory of the slow growth of socialism by way of democracy was accepted. With the growth of the legal labour movement, thus rendered possible, the allegiance of great numbers of the petty-bourgeoisie was secured, who soon took over the intellectual leadership of the movement and shared with the upstart workers in the material advantages of the salaried positions which it offered. Around the turn of the century, reformism had triumphed all along the line. The resistance to this development on the part of the so-called ‘orthodox’ Marxists, headed by Kautsky, was never more than a matter of phrases and even that was soon given up. Among the better known theoreticians of that time, Luxemburg and Lenin are to be mentioned particularly as carrying their struggle ruthlessly through to the end, not only against established reformism but soon also against the ‘orthodox’ in the interest of a truly Marxist labour movement.

Of all the attacks on revisionism, one may venture to say that those of Rosa Luxemburg were the most powerful. In her polemic directed against Bernstein10 she pointed out once more, in opposition to the nonsense of pure legalism, that “the exploitation of the working class as an economic process cannot be abolished or softened through” legislation in the framework of bourgeois society.”11 Social reform, she insisted, “does not constitute an invasion into capitalist exploitation, but a regulating, an ordering of this exploitation in the interest of capitalist society itself.”6 Capital, says Rosa Luxemburg, is not heading for socialism, but collapse, and it is this collapse to which the workers must be adjusted – not to reform, but to revolution. This is not to say, however, that we have to renounce the questions of the present; revolutionary Marxism, too, fights to improve the workers’ situation within capitalist society. But, in contrast to revisionism, it is interested far more in how the fight is conducted than in the immediate objectives. To Marxism the matter of moment in the trade-union and political struggle is the development of the subjective factors of the working class revolution, the promotion of revolutionary class consciousness. The blunt setting of reform over against revolution is a false statement of the question; these oppositions must be given their proper place in the whole of the social process. We must avoid losing sight of the final goal, the proletarian revolution, through the struggle for everyday demands.6 In a similar manner, revisionism was attacked somewhat later by Lenin. To him also, reforms were only a by-product of the struggle directed to the conquest of political power. Both were at one in their struggle against the emasculation of the Marxist movement and took their stand on the platform of the revolutionary struggle for power. They came out for the first time in opposition to each other when Russian conditions before, during and after the revolution of 1905 made the revolutionary struggle for power a vital issue which had to be met in a concrete manner. Thus the conflict which flared up between Luxemburg and Lenin turned first on tactical problems, matters of organisation and the national question.

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