Tim Nelson: Rosa Luxemburg and the revolutionary party

Category: Left Unity
Published on Tuesday, 26 March 2013
Written by Tim Nelson
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This is the first in a series of articles this blog plans to run as the IS Network begins a wide-ranging discussion and debate about the IS tradition and the way forward for the left. Each piece reflects the views of the author, not a collective position taken by the network.

Rosa LuxemburgOf the many debates which have emerged out of the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party, one of the most important has been the question of democracy within the movement, and how socialists should organise. Those of us who have questioned the level of democracy have been accused of wishing to abandon Leninist principles of organisation. Although this is not the case, I would argue that there has been, for a number of years, an overreliance on a certain interpretation of Lenin’s writings, which has led us to have a rather limited approach towards revolutionary organisation, and have hindered our growth. Furthermore, I would argue that the International Socialist tradition, particularly before the 1970s, did not limit itself to replicating the methods of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Tony Cliff, and others within the early I.S., recognised that others, particularly Rosa Luxemburg, had as much to teach us as Lenin when we are discussing methods of organisation.

The debate surrounding Rosa Luxemburg’s contribution to the nature of socialist organisation has been long-running. The roots of the discussion lie in an exchange between Luxemburg and Lenin in 1904. It is often asserted that Luxemburg’s looser, more libertarian model of a revolutionary organisation is to be contrasted with Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, a hierarchical, top-down structure dominated by professional revolutionaries with an all-powerful central committee. This idea has, for a long time, suited both those who wish to reject Lenin out of hand as an authoritarian, and those who wish to reduce Leninism to orthodoxy, and justify undemocratic practice in his name. In other words, this false dichotomy has served both those socialists who wish to distance themselves from the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik Party, and Stalinists and other authoritarian Marxists, who wish to justify their opposition to democracy in the movement by tracing its roots to Lenin.

It is my opinion that, while Luxemburg and Lenin disagreed on a number of important strategic and organisational matters, particularly on the nature of the revolutionary party, much of those disagreements were as a result of the different conditions in which they operated. Due to the success of the Bolshevik Party in leading a successful revolution in October 1917, it has become generally accepted by revolutionary socialists that the 'Leninist model' of a revolutionary party was the correct one. This is unfortunate for two reasons. Firstly, there is much we can learn from Luxemburg’s arguments on the subject of revolutionary organisation, which fit our circumstances now much more than those of Lenin. Secondly, the “Leninist model” proposed by many on the revolutionary left is based on many distortions and misconceptions.


Legacy of a Smear

The false counterposition between Luxemburg and Lenin has its roots in attempts by the Russian Communist Party to impose its own model of top-down, bureaucratic organisation on the German Communist Party (the KPD) in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This process was first begun with the “Bolshevisation” campaign led by Zinoviev’s supporters in the German party, and was continued by the Stalinists later on. In order to impose these new structures the bureaucracy not only needed to take apart the KPD’s native democratic structures but also had to dismiss their theoretical justification. The KPD had for a long time seen Luxemburg as its leading theorist, and much of her theory of revolutionary organisation had been applied by them in practice. Zinoviev and Stalin’s supporters used the debates between her and Lenin to paint Luxemburg as a 'semi-Menshevik'. It has since become commonplace, even among those who recognize the importance of Luxemburg’s contributions in other fields of socialist thought, to dismiss her as wrong, or mistaken, on the question of the party.

The Zinovievists and Stalinists crudely dogmatised the works of Lenin, taking his arguments out of their social and historical context and thus robbing them of their original meaning. Thus the Bolshevik tradition ceased to be painted as it was – a living, dynamic marriage of theory and practice – and became applied as a sterile dogma. Lenin’s debates with Rosa Luxemburg in 1904 were used within the party to justify the uprooting of democratic structures and their replacement with a top-down bureaucracy which took orders from Moscow.

Luxemburg, throughout her writings on the subject, had insisted on the greatest amount of democracy at every level within the movement. She took on the question of the role of the party in a pamphlet, 'Organisational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy'. She was writing at a point when there was a serious debate within Russia about the nature of socialist organisation, in which Lenin emphasised the need for centralisation of the party structures and the necessity of a party of 'professional revolutionaries'. Luxemburg argued that, up until then, Russian social democracy had been made up from largely disconnected and scattered groups, mainly focused on propaganda, with little or no central leadership. It was therefore understandable that Lenin focused upon the need for centralisation. She analysed Lenin’s ideas, which were set out in 'One Step Forward, Two Steps Back', and described them as representing an 'ultra-centralist' tendency. She pointed out that Lenin’s thesis required “constituting as a separate corps all the active revolutionists” from the mass of workers. She also described how this ultra-centralism would lead to extraordinary powers for the leadership of the party

“Lenin’s thesis is that the party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party. It should have the right to appoint the effective organs of all local bodies from Geneva to Liege, from Tomsk to Irkutsk. It should also have the right to impose on all of them its own ready-made rules of party conduct. It should have the right to rule without appeal on such questions as the dissolution and reconstitution of local organisations. This way, the Central Committee could determine, to suit itself, the composition of the highest party organs. The Central Committee would be the only thinking element in the party. All other groupings would be its executive limbs.”

Luxemburg did not question the need for centralisation; in fact she acknowledged that due to capitalism’s inherently centralising tendency – the bringing together of previously atomised groups and individuals in the production process – it was necessary for socialists to organise in this way. What she disputed was the nature of that centralisation. She argued that what separates socialism from previous revolutionary movements was that it depends upon the organisation of the independent activity of the masses. It therefore followed that revolutionary socialist organisation should differ sharply from that of previous movements, such as Jacobinism or Blanquism, which depended on the organisation of a revolutionary minority. She argued that Lenin, rather than acknowledging this, sought simply to apply the old methods of an organised minority and orientating them towards the mass movement. She indicated that Lenin argued a socialist is “a Jacobin indissolubly joined to the organisation of the proletariat, which becomes conscious of its class interests”. Although Lenin recognises the Marxist concept that the working class must emancipate itself, he does not follow by realising that an entirely different conception of centralisation is needed.

In this, Luxemburg argues that Lenin had more in common with the Blanquist movement of the nineteenth century than with that of socialism. Blanquists aimed to organise a small conspiratorial minority who planned the revolution, while the masses only played a role at the moment of insurrection. Since Blanquist methods had little connection with the working class, or the class struggle itself, tactics and tasks could be decided upon before hand as a ready-made plan. Ordinary members simply had to carry out the orders decided upon well in advance, at the will of the central leadership. Luxemburg argued that the natural consequence of this “conspiratorial centralism” was blind obedience to the centre.

For Luxemburg, a socialist party should be based, not upon the activity of a small dedicated minority under the direction of a central committee, but upon the self-activity of the working class drawn out of the class struggle. She argued that:

"There do not exist for the social democracy detailed sets of tactics which a Central Committee can teach the party membership in the same way as troops are instructed in training camps.”

The activity of socialists must be based upon the spontaneous self-activity of the working class. Strategy and tactics cannot be delivered to the working class as a fait accompli by an enlightened minority, but are developed and learned through struggle. Rather than “a Jacobin joined to the organisation of the proletariat” as Lenin argued, socialist centralism for Luxemburg:

“can only be the concentrated will of the individuals and groups representative of the working class. It is, so to speak, the ‘self-centralism’ of the advanced sections of the proletariat. It is the rule of the majority within its own party.”

In other words, a socialist party is, rather than separate to, or above the working class, rooted in the proletariat, and the organisational expression of its most advanced, or revolutionary, elements. In order for this to be realised, there must be a layer of the proletariat “educated in the class struggle”, and “the possibility for the workers to develop their own political activity” inside the party. Blind obedience to a central committee crushes the expression of workers’ spontaneity and holds back their self-activity and development. Spontaneity, the ability of the working class to develop its own ideas and tactics through struggle, was central to Luxemburg’s thought. She pointed to many occasions in the recent history of the class struggle where the spontaneous acts of the class were of much greater importance than any “conscious” decision by a leadership, where the class’s consciousness advanced rapidly, while organised socialists lagged behind, or even held it back. She argued that there was a clear tendency for socialist organisations to actually play a conservative role:

“Experience shows that every time the labour movement wins new terrain, those organs work it to the utmost. They transform it at the same time into a kind of bastion, which holds up advance on a wider scale.”

Anyone who has been involved in the movement can appreciate the truth of this statement. So often, a particular gain will be made by the working class movement, using a particular organisational formation, or set of tactics, and sections of the movement will make a fetish or orthodoxy of this. This tendency can only be exaggerated by the existence of an overly centralised apparatus:

“Granting, as Lenin wants, such absolute powers of a negative character to the top organ of the party, we strengthen, to a dangerous extent, the conservatism inherent in such an organ.”

Every section of the party needs freedom of activity, which allows them not only to develop their own initiative, but to best respond to the activity of the movement and the class as a whole.


Adapting to the Situation

In order to fully contextualize the debate between Luxemburg and Lenin, we must note the difference in conditions that both faced. This, more than anything, is the failure in analysis of the Stalinists, and others, who wish to make a dogma out of Leninism, and who fetishise a particular set of organisational principles developed by Lenin over a century ago. Both Luxemburg and Lenin recognised at the time that conditions in economically backward Tsarist Russia were very different to those in Germany, one of the most advanced capitalist economies in the world.

Luxemburg recognised, at the time of the debate, that Lenin was engaged in combating the Menshevik tendency within the Russian socialist movement. The Mensheviks were the Russian manifestation of reformism, or what Luxemburg and Lenin refer to as “opportunism”. She correctly indicates that working class organisations will inevitably attract middle class intellectuals, particularly when they have reached a certain level of development. These elements will inevitably attempt to assume leadership roles within the movement, and will often opportunistically attempt to represent certain trends or tendencies, irrespective of their political merit. The Mensheviks in Russia argued for a decentralised, loose organisation because this best suited their arguments for gradual reform, and a tailing of the 'progressive' bourgeoisie. Lenin incorrectly generalised from this to suggest that decentralisation was an inherently opportunistic position. Luxemburg correctly pointed out that this was far from the case:

“On the question of organisation, or any other question, opportunism knows only one principle: the absence of principle. Opportunism chooses its means of action with the aim of suiting the given circumstances at hand, provided these means appear to lead towards the ends in view… In general, it is rigorous, despotic centralism which is preferred by opportunistic intellectuals.”

Reformism, in essence, is “socialism from above”. It departs from the Marxist idea the working class can, and must, liberate itself. The task of the party, for reformists, is to liberate the working class on their behalf, through the mechanisms of the bourgeois state. In Germany, the argument for centralisation was in fact being conducted by reformists. They overemphasised structure because they underestimated the revolutionary potential of the class. The working class, for them, was there to provide votes and membership subs so that the party leadership could carry out the struggle within parliament for reforms. The spontaneous activity of the proletariat was seen, at best, as a diversion from this much more important work and, at worst, a danger to it. As the working class becomes engaged in struggle, new leaders, ideas and methods are developed. The spontaneous activity of the working class can therefore challenge the positions of an existing leadership, particularly one which was developed during a period of inactivity, weakness, or passivity.

As has been indicated above, many of Luxemburg’s criticisms of Lenin have been distorted over time. The arguments Lenin made regarding the revolutionary party changed depending on circumstances, influenced by events. During the 1905 Russian revolution, Lenin changed his position on a number of issues. The revolution was marked by waves of mass strikes, and the creation of new mass working class organisations, the Soviets, for the first time. Lenin launched a campaign within the Bolshevik Party, first for the party to relate to these new organisations, and secondly for the party’s structures to adapt to the changed situation. Where as in 1904 Lenin had championed a hardened party made up from 'professional revolutionaries', where the strictest discipline and sweeping powers for the central committee were essential, he now argued for the party to 'open the floodgates' and admit as many workers into its structures as possible. In this, he came up against resistance from those he called 'committeemen'. The committeemen were largely intellectuals who had been hardened by years of clandestine activity, “professional revolutionaries” who worked full time to build the party. They had been convinced by Lenin’s arguments in 1904 and were resistant to relinquishing control of the party to newly recruited workers and youth, many of whom had ideas and methods which were considered unorthodox.

In the reaction which followed the revolution, when the Bolshevik Party shrank dramatically, it was these committeemen who largely stayed loyal to the party. However, at the height of the struggle they were a conservative bloc who in many ways personified Luxemburg’s fears of how socialist organisational structures could play a conservative role. Lenin fought within the party for the committees to admit more and more workers, to combat the conservatism of the committeemen and build the party, allowing the spontaneity of the workers to develop the organisation.

Lenin proved during this period that, for him, the structures employed by a socialist party should change to adapt to new situations. It is therefore completely incorrect to dub any particular form of party organisation as 'Leninist.


Self-activity vs Substitutionism

Luxemburg’s writings are an invaluable contribution to the discussion on the revolutionary party, and are still relevant today. It is, of course, entirely wrong to counterpose her ideas to those of Lenin’s without taking into account the circumstances in which both were working. Furthermore, it is incorrect to take Lenin’s arguments in 1903 out of context, failing to acknowledge that his ideas changed in the course of the struggle. However, Luxemburg’s criticisms of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party remain important, and can inform any debate about the revolutionary party today.

For Luxemburg, the starting point was always the revolutionary potential of the working class, its ability to liberate itself, and to self-organise. While the Bolshevik method of organisation had a certain logic in the conditions of Russia at the time, it had considerable drawbacks, which Lenin would acknowledge in due course. Ultimately, no party structure, however well organised, can be a substitute for the self-activity of the working class. In order to build a mass movement with the potential to overthrow capitalism, the revolutionary party must not only relate to the spontaneity of the working class, but incorporate it into its own organisations and structures. A party which insists that the workers accept its preconceived plan, decided upon at the top, and delivered to them as a fait accompli will never be able to properly develop.

It has to be recognised that the class does not simply learn from the party, the party must also learn from the class. In the course of the struggle, new ideas and leaders can and will emerge, independently of the ‘enlightened few’ in a revolutionary party. To adapt to these ideas, to incorporate the new leaders and develop new cadre, are absolutely essential in building the revolutionary socialist movement. The alternative is sectarian isolation. Socialists who have preconceived ideas “distilled” over time in isolation from the actually existing class struggle, refusing to adapt their ideas or their structures, are incapable of either building the movement or learning from the class.

Lenin was to learn, in the course of the struggle, the dangers of such sectarianism. Both in the 1905 revolution, and in 1917, there were points when elements of the party structures fell behind the class and became a conservative force. They refused to properly relate to the class as new methods and ideas contradicted their own theory, which was considered the blueprint for revolution. Luxemburg recognised that in order to best relate to the spontaneity of the working class a party needed to be built from the bottom up. Independence of activity for all organs of the party would reflect the spontaneity of the working class, and be best able to relate to the activity that this produced. A revolutionary party, rooted in the class, learning from the struggle, and leading in building the movement, has the potential to lead a genuinely revolutionary mass movement, and become a mass revolutionary party. A party which fails to relate to the movement because it does not follow the preconceived plan of the party leaders, which fails to learn from the struggle because it believes it has nothing to learn, is doomed to become nothing more than a sect.

The revolutionary socialist movement has for decades been hampered by the legacy of Stalinism. The isolation of the Soviet Union and its degeneration led to an autocratic version of the revolutionary party becoming the dominant model. Although Stalinism was the final conclusion of this degeneration, the process started much earlier, when the pressures of civil war led to the decimation of the working class in Russia, the collapse of its organisations, and the substitution for them by the party bureaucracy. The imposition of undemocratic structures on other Communist parties by the Comintern began with Zinoviev, not Stalin. Furthermore, the strict internal regime the Russian Communist Party developed was first advocated by Lenin and Trotsky, not Stalin. All this, along with the need for Trotsky and his followers to vie with the Stalinists as the “true” inheritors of the Leninist tradition, led many Trotskyist parties, once they split from the Communist parties, to adopt similar organisational methods.

Throughout the history of the British Trotskyist movement, we have seen the replication of many aspects of the Stalinist party structures. The International Socialists, the forerunners of the SWP, set itself apart by rejecting such structures, attempting to build an open democratic organisation with a plurality of different ideas and an utter rejection of the dogmatism that was another trait which many Trotskyists had unfortunately inherited from Stalinism. The SWP’s current structures were developed in the 1970s, led by Tony Cliff against much opposition, in order for the party to best respond to the changing situation. It is not best to discuss here whether such a move was correct, but it is important to recognise that the current party structures were adopted to respond to specific circumstances. They were the product of a downturn in struggle and a retreat of the left.

As has been argued above, Luxemburg correctly recognised the conservative role party organisation can play, particularly when developed in a period of defeat, and having experienced decades of working class passivity and a low level of struggle. When this organisational structure is tasked with relating to new forces, and adapting to new circumstances, there can be much resistance from the “committeemen”, the loyal party cadre who have fought so hard for so long, with their “tried and tested” methods, and their forty years of distilled Leninism. However, when new movements emerge, with new methods and ideas, these conservative elements need to be worked over, and a new method of organising needs to be developed, which relates to the class and builds the party from the bottom up.

As revolutionary socialists, we argue for the need to organise as a party. We recognise that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, but we also acknowledge that the dominant ideas of any society are those of the ruling class. Under capitalism, many workers will therefore hold reactionary ideas. It is this contradiction which means we need a party. The role of the party is to organise the most advanced sections of the working class, who reject capitalist ideas and want to organise for capitalism’s overthrow. This party must endeavour not just to harden an enlightened minority but convince and recruit to revolutionary ideas as many of the class as possible, and attempt to build a genuinely mass movement with the potential to confront capitalism and the state.

Such a party, which encapsulates and encourages the self-activity and spontaneity of the working class, must be democratic. We need freedom of criticism, communication and association. We need an end to the belief that ideas and theory is the sole province of the privileged few, that plans can only be formulated at the top. An “interventionist” party can only be achieved of we actively engage with movements, build them, and learn from them. To do this, we need to stop dead the arrogant assertion that the SWP is the sole inheritor of the revolutionary mantle. Our tradition is rich and diverse, and it continues to develop through history as social circumstances change. We have much to learn from Lenin, but if we convert his ideas into dogma we will learn nothing. Out of context quotes and banal platitudes have no practical application. Dogmatism goes against the very nature of socialism. Marxism is a theory which starts from the premise that material circumstances are in a constant state of change, brought about by contradiction. To raise one individual, whether it is Lenin, Cliff, Luxemburg or Marx himself above this basic logic, and claim that their ideas transcend history, without revision or adaption, is to break with Marxism altogether.


Two Visions of the Revolutionary Left

The methods of organisation used in Germany in the early twentieth century are not directly applicable to us in the early twenty first century, any more than those used in Russia in that period. Luxemburg worked within the SPD, a mass working class organisation bigger and more influential than any other social democratic party. However, the ideas she outlined remain of the utmost relevance. There is a debate within the socialist movement now which strikes at the heart of the fears she had in 1904.

There are two sides to this debate. One side has a vision of a revolutionary left built from below, with genuine debate and democracy at every level, from the local branch or union fraction to the leading committees. At every stage of this democracy, in every debate, the involvement of the wider movement should not just be allowed, but encouraged. On the other side of the debate is a top-down model of organisation, with the ideas and whims of the central committee decreed from above to the party faithful, who then deliver these preconceived plans to the class, without discussion or agreement. Not only does this model prevent our ability to build a mass party – nowhere will we find millions of workers prepared to simply follow the orders of a small, isolated group of people – but it goes against the very basic principle of socialism, that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.

No clique of administrators or intellectuals has the ability, or the right, to build a revolutionary party. If they attempt such a thing, it will simply be built in their own image – bureaucratic, dogmatic and elitist. We need to, as revolutionaries, recognise that only the working class is capable of building a party capable of leading a revolution. A party needs to be built from below, and this is done by revolutionaries responding to and encouraging the self-activity of the working class, encouraging the widest possible participation in the party, and the movement as a whole, in the hope of winning the maximum unity possible in taking on the ruling class

The leadership of the Socialist Workers Party have lost their way. They view the membership as foot soldiers, the middle cadre as drill sergeants, and the movement as a hostile land through which, with their fine generalship and our iron discipline, we may be able to navigate. The SWP is not the finished model of the revolutionary party, nor does it have possession of a perfect blueprint for one. We need to relate to the class, learn from it, and build from it. We need to help develop new leaders, new structures, and new ideas. We need an openly democratic revolutionary organisation in order to do so.

Anti-authoritarianism is a major feature of the movement now. This is particularly noticeable in the student movement and among people in parts of the workforce in which the trade unions have little influence. However, it is becoming a recurring feature in the organised working class movement as well. This anti-authoritarianism should not be resisted; it should be encouraged and developed.

evolutionary socialists are anti-bureaucratic, anti-authoritarian Marxists. We differ with anarchists in that we do not make a principle out of any particular organisational form. However, we agree with those strains of anarchism which emphasise the importance of liberation from below. We reject authoritarianism in the movement, and its most common manifestation, bureaucratism. In this respect, we are libertarian socialists in the truest sense of the term. The new movements developing are dominated by people who would largely accept such ideas. Sometimes they adopt organisational forms such as autonomist “free spaces” and consensus decision-making which we may believe are incorrect or limited, but such tactics are a product of an attempt to organise collectively while rejecting traditional socialist and social democratic methods of organisation.

As socialists we have to recognise that such a shift away from traditional models was inevitable. The last century has seen many parties, and states for that matter, which have called themselves socialist, Marxist, Communist and Leninist, that have been largely undemocratic and in many cases quite nasty. There is going to be a reaction to that. Any new movement is not going to simply replicate old methods, but try to develop its own. Some we may argue against or even have to reject outright, others may in fact be useful innovations which we can adopt and develop. We cannot claim to be for the self-organisation of the working class, and then insist it organises in a certain way. The prospect of a new movement which opposes bureaucratism and rejects authoritarian structures is something that, as libertarian socialists, we should welcome.

Of course, such tendencies can develop in ways we may disagree with – autonomists often aim to set up alternative structures to capitalism as a whole rather than confront it, and there can be a fetishisation of spontaneity, which can lead to a new kind of substitutionism, propaganda by the deed, where individual acts of protest are substituted for collective acts of resistance. These are variations of debates the revolutionary socialist movement has had with utopian strands of socialism, and with anarchism, throughout our history – debates which must continue. There are arguments to be won within these movements, such as the centrality of the working class and the need to smash the state, but such arguments cannot be conducted from the outside, nor can they be won by a sectarian insistence on certain organisational forms.

We also have to recognise that we have as much to learn from these movements as they do from us. The top-down version of Leninism used by the Socialist Workers Party is not capable of adapting to these movements, and incorporating these new ideas and methods into the organisation. We need a democratic organisation, which encourages the self-activity of the membership and responds to the spontaneity of the class.

Tim Nelson