March 17, 2021

Rosa Luxemburg and the Strategic Challenge of the Left

Michael Brie

Setting sail towards socialism in the twenty-first century… dialectically

Photo: “The World Stands on a Volcano”, one of the many Communist agitprop posters produced by Vladimir Mayakovsky for the Soviet news agency ROSTA in the early 1920s. Wikimedia/Public domain

A discussion under the title “Rosa Luxemburg and the Strategic Challenge of the Left” is confronted with a problem: Luxemburg’s tremendous strengths lay above all in brilliant analysis, in pointing out new developments, in the sharp formulation of contradictions, and in the prophetic insistence on the beating heart of socialism. She embodied this heart of socialism like no other—the combination of “ruthless revolutionary energy and the most all-encompassing humanity”.[1]

Yet Luxemburg’s strength is also a weakness. She underestimated organizational power and was weak in applying dialectical strategies. For the most part, she faced contradictions head on and stood up to them. This is impressive and powerful, and challenges us existentially. But if the Left wants to sail against the storm in the direction of socialism, then it must learn to set sail in such a way that it can move against the prevailing winds. Strategy means to transform the objective and subjective contradictions into one’s own strength. As Walter Benjamin, schooled in defeat, wrote:

Being a dialectician means having the wind of history in one’s sails. The sails are the concepts. It is not enough, however, to have sails at one’s disposal. What is decisive is knowing the art of setting them.[2]

Above all, Luxemburg set the flag on the ship of socialism and is the compass of our journey, so that we never forget what we are and where we are striving to go. This was her strength. To listfully set sail and thereby to combine the opposing forces properly was not her thing.

Luxemburg’s Strategic Lacunae

As a strategist, Luxemburg failed time and again. Her pamphlet against Bernstein offered no new approach to the strategy pursued by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the late 1890s, the potential of which had by then been exhausted. On the Polish question, it was fixed on a single strategy: the socialist struggle in the existing great empires. From her grand revision of Marx’s theory of accumulation, she did not equate the possible strategic consequences of the alliance of the struggle in the metropolitan countries with the struggle in the colonies.[3] She did not at all systematically prepare in prison during World War I for the open situation foreseeable in the event of Germany’s defeat. The Junius Pamphlet is a glaring indictment of the War, and yet fails as a strategic guide to action.

I would like to illustrate the problem of Luxemburg’s strategic shortcomings with her text The Russian Revolutionwritten in autumn 1918. Luxemburg’s text, written from prison, can be understood as a symphony consisting of four movements. The manuscript begins and ends with an appraisal of the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks. These are sections I and II and the final part—they can be interpreted as the first long and then the very short fourth movement of her “symphony”. The longer first movement is like a beating drum presenting the theme: “[t]he Russian Revolution is the mightiest event of the World War”.[4] The manuscript ends with an appraisal of the Bolsheviks, stating that they had managed to go beyond “questions of tactics” and instead focused on “the most important problem of socialism”, which is “the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such”.[5] Luxemburg ends her manuscript with the sentence: “[a]nd in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism’”.[6] One could also read this final sentence as meaning that it is only in thissense that the future everywhere belongs to Bolshevism. The beat of the drum has become a delicate piano motif. The appraisal of the Bolsheviks is played loudly at first, and ends much more quietly.

In the second movement of her “symphony”, Rosa Luxemburg proposed measures which, from the point of view of the Bolsheviks, would have created greater mass opposition from Russian peasants and the Russian periphery against the Soviet government. She opposes the policy of giving land directly to the peasants instead of creating cooperatives or state farms, and is strictly opposed to the right of the suppressed nationalities to form their own nation-states. Yet in the third movement, she strongly refutes precisely the measures taken by the Bolsheviks to stabilize their power in the face of already-existing opposition: dictatorship and terror. It seems Rosa Luxemburg believed that it was possible to simultaneously implement a policy of the immediate socialization of the means of production (in the city and partly in the countryside) as well as a policy of all-encompassing democratization. Socialist democracy and the establishment of democratic socialism should go hand-in-hand.[7]

But how can this work? The use of the “iron hand” of “proletarian dictatorship” to suppress all interests not immediately in line with a socialism understood as common ownership of the means of production, but also combined with “freedom of the press”, “the right to association and assembly”, implementing measures in an “unyielding and unhesitant fashion” while allowing “unlimited democracy”? Rosa Luxemburg, it appears, wants something that is impossible—the direct transformation toward socialism—and she wants the impossible in the most radically democratic way. The second and third movement of her “symphony” stand in clear opposition to each other if one looks at them from the point of view of power relations. She even neglects her own strategic evaluation of the first Russian Revolution.[8]

Rosa Luxemburg overcame these contradictions; in the end, she united them and created a vision of true harmony of the two opposing movements. This unity was only possible because she was convinced that through their everyday practices, workers and the masses would change and “social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc.” would develop.[9] She believed that these instincts and initiatives as well as idealism would take society in exactly the direction of the form of socialism she proposed once the basic institutions of common ownership were put in place. Therefore, she could envisage that the greatest degree of freedom would lead to the greatest degree of insight into the truth of socialism as a society of socialized property, common interests, internationalism, and peace. However, one of the main lessons of twentieth-century socialism is that this harmony of this socialism and this democracy did not work.

Revising the Future

Based on this, what is the strategic challenge for the Left in the twenty-first century? To put it enthusiastically: we should continue to follow Luxemburg’s banner. The unity of socialism and democracy is indispensable. But at the same time, this vision can only be sustained if both concepts, that of socialism and that of democracy, undergo a fundamental revision. One of the many reasons for the strategic weakness of the Left in Europe and the United States is that it uses terms that make it impossible to set sail dialectically and sail against the storm. The reason is that these terms are themselves undialectical. Marxʼs vision of an association of free humans jointly disposing of the socialized means of production according to a unified plan is such a contradiction-free concept. Luxemburg followed this vision.

As the German Revolution of 1918–19 broke out, Luxemburg believed that socialist revolution was the order of the day in Germany. According to her, the “main foundations” of a society ordered according to socialism are clear:

It suffices that we know they will be based on the socialised ownership of all means of production, and that instead of individual producers, society as a whole and its elected organs will direct production. … The highest idealism in the interest of the collectivity, the strictest self-discipline, the truest public spirit of the masses are the moral foundations of socialist socie­ty, just as stupidity, egotism, and corruption are the moral foundations of capitalist society.[10]

To put it bluntly—as Luxemburg also would have done—this is just wishful thinking or political romanticism, neglecting the contradiction inherent in any complex society.

Socialism is a complex society, as well. The contradictions between individual, collective, and social development do not disappear; they can only be placed on a new foundation and mediated differently. I cannot elaborate on this here, but rather only formulate principles: a socialist economy mediates between social control over the reproduction of the communist foundations of society on the one hand— above all the management of natural resources, the provision of social services, and the economy—and the responsible and accountable entrepreneurial use of social resources for the purposes of collectives and individuals. Such an economy combines social control and market self-regulation. It is a mixed economy of commons economy and an economy in multiple cooperative, associated, and private forms. What is important is the direction of mediation of the contradictions.

The Left must also overcome the notion that the radical expansion of democratic forms of freedom of expression, freedom of association, and free elections by itself elicits socialist tendencies. The opposite can be true, as we saw in 1989. Unleashed capitalism is often accompanied by an unleashing of liberal democracy, until the development turns into fascism. Democracy is also based on a fundamental contradiction. It is about the rule of the people as a whole, and is supposed to emerge from the free action of individuals. At the same time, it is about the free self-determination of individuals, which only comes into being through the rule of the people.

Luxemburg’s demand for the unity of “dictatorship of the class” and the “most active, unlimited participation of the mass of the people, of unlimited democracy”[11] is an enduring socialist orientation. But one must not overlook the contradiction hiding in this orientation. There is a deep contradiction: between class rule as the rule of the very concrete common interests of a large group, and the democratic expression of the interests of individuals as individuals in that group. Even in a socialist society, this contradiction between the interests of individuals as members of society and as individual persons does not disappear. It is the contradiction between volonté générale (the general will) and volonté des tous (the will of all), as first outlined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The idea—widespread even in today’s Left—that the realm of non-contradiction begins beyond capitalism, is diametrically opposed to the Left’s ability to pursue strategy. It prevents confronting the contradictions of emancipatory politics that exist in the here and now. It creates “false oppositions” instead of strategically conveying the real oppositions in the right way.

In order to develop the ability to properly mediate the real contradictions, the Left must accept the communist as well as the liberal heritage in all their contradictions, and give this double heritage a socialist direction. We need a practical philosophy of the contradictions of complex societies and a strategy of revolutionary Realpolitik based on it. Communist communality and liberal liberties are both indispensable. Transformational strategies must integrate the two. They must dare to achieve greater communism, dare to reach more volonté générale! But they must also look for forms of freedom that promote such communism, that promote the overall interests of solidarity and do not stand in the way of them.

We must learn from Luxemburg, the prophet of democratic socialism, from Lenin, the strategist of intervening action, and from Gramsci, the philosopher of dialectical practice, in times of passive transformation. And we must listen again to the wisdom of the people around us, in the daily effort and daily struggles for a life of dignity in all its contradictions.

Michael Brie is chairperson of the  Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Academic Advisory Board in Berlin. This  article is based on a presentation delivered at “Rosa Luxemburg at 150:  Revisiting Her Radical Life and Legacy”, a conference hosted by the  Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and the International Rosa Luxemburg Society.

[1] Rosa Luxemburg, “A Duty of Honor”, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 1918 [accessed 13 May 2020].

[2] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge/London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 473.

[3] Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, New Jersey: Humanity Press, 1981, p. 37.

[4] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution (1918)”, in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, ed. by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004, p. 281.

[5] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution (1918)”, p. 310.

[6] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution (1918)”, p. 310.

[7] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution (1918)”, p. 308.

[8] see Rosa Luxemburg, “Zur Konstituante Und Zur Provisorischen Regierung”, in Im Licht Der Revolution. Zwei Texte von Rosa Luxemburg Aus Dem Jahre 1906 Und Paralipomena Zu Leben Und Werk, ed. by Klaus Kinner and Manfred Neuhaus, Rosa-Luxemburg-Forschungsberichte, Heft 12, Leipzig: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Sachsen, 2015, pp. 15–54.

[9] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution (1918)”, p. 306.

[10] Rosa Luxemburg, “Was Wollen Wir? Kommentar Zum Programm Der Sozialdemokratie Des Königreichs Polen Und Litauens (1906)”, in Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 2, Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag, 1972, p. 43.

[11] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution (1918)”, p. 307f.