Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Spartacist Leaders

In hindsight, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that German socialism once seemed more important than Russian socialism. Even the Bolsheviks originally suspected that their revolt could only be justified if it triggered a larger revolution in the center of European socialism, Germany. One of the chief figures in the German socialist movement was of course Rosa Luxemburg, a woman who rejected parliamentary strands of socialism and trade unionism in favor of the Marxist creed of revolutionary takeover.

Luxemburg supported Bolshevism up to a point, but criticized its leader, Lenin, up until her death at the hands of Prussian military officers in the abortive 1919 Spartacus insurrection—an insurrection she opposed as a matter of strategy but felt morally obligated to lead when her advice was ignored by her Party’s membership. Reading Luxemburg’s two major essays on the subject, re-titled by Bertram Wolfe as The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism, one is impressed by her attack on Lenin’s undemocratic approach to politics. According to Wolfe, Luxemburg accepted the unpleasant necessity of a creating a short-term “dictatorship of the proletariat” but understood its inherent distastefulness and hoped to put an end to it as soon as possible.

Rosa Luxemburg

Unlike Lenin, Luxemburg had enormous faith in the working classes, and believed that their creativity should be encouraged by a politics of freedom, democratic participation, and even the toleration of dissent within the movement. To Luxemburg, “worker control” of economic production as well as political decision-making was not merely rhetoric, as we know it was in Lenin’s Russia, where workers were quickly and almost completely disenfranchised by the unrivalled authority of the Communist Party.

Luxemburg supported the Bolsheviks as the vanguard of history but followed a Menshevik line of thinking—which seems all too accurate in retrospect—that conditions in Russia were unripe for a successful experiment in Marxism. Bolshevism was a heroic effort to grapple with the evils of capitalism and tsarist militarism, but the experiment was undermined by impoverished opportunities that resulted from a backward economy, a disastrous war effort, an absence of democratic tradition, low cultural standards, and civil war. Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin and Trotsky is compelling, especially in light of what we now know about the defects of Russia’s Central Committee as a mechanism for governing Russia.

She, and the Mensheviks with whom she sympathized, was right about the Bolsheviks: they’re decision to dissolve the Constituent Assembly rather than face popular pressure—and hundreds of subsequent decisions that reinforced a totalitarian tendency in Russian Communism—were tragic and misguided. Still, one can see the weakness of Luxemburg’s line of reasoning, in that it awkwardly rejected totalitarian tendencies even as it supported the historical imperative of avoiding any compromise with the strong tradition of Left-wing German parliamentary politics.

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