Luxemburg, Lenin, and the Comintern

“Enthusiasm combined with critical thought”

ROSA LUXEMBURG and V. I. Lenin were the foremost leaders of social democracy’s international left. They shared an enduring faith in working-class self-emancipation, a commitment to revolution, an understanding of socialists as the tribune of the oppressed, and principled opposition to imperialism and war. They were frequently allied in the struggle against reformism; they collaborated in Finland after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution; they coauthored the landmark antiwar amendment at the Stuttgart congress of 1907. And, myths about Luxemburg’s worship of “spontaneity” notwithstanding, they both spent their lives building socialist organizations.

They, with the rest of the Second International, looked to Germany’s Social Democratic Party, based on the 1891 Erfurt Program’s dual commitment to the minimum and maximum programs. And they both famously denounced the Second International in 1914, when the leadership of the vast majority of parties abandoned international working-class solidarity to support the imperialist war efforts of their respective nations.

Throughout their lives they often disagreed. On particular issues, most notably the national question, they did so consistently and fiercely. But they were on the same side of many more battles. Even their sharp polemical arguments are testimony to their commitment as Marxists to democratic and open debate as a precondition to political clarity in theory and practice.

And yet there is a perennial orthodoxy that Luxemburg’s political legacy is antithetical to that of Lenin and, by extension, to that of the Bolsheviks. Reviews surrounding the recent Verso Books publication in English of Luxemburg’s letters illustrate the ubiquity of this tendency.1 These are not revelations gleaned from the new materials, but old myths drawn from the extant body of myths about Lenin that  Lars Lih, discussing Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? calls the “textbook interpretation.” This “wide and long-standing consensus” is unsubstantiated. Yet repetition reinforces it: Lenin was anti-democratic, totalitarian, and paved the way for Stalinism. And he was joyless, domineering, and compulsive to boot.2 As has been argued elsewhere, this is a groundless caricature of Lenin that disregards copious evidence to the contrary.3

Equally, although she is on the favored side of the “good revolutionary/bad revolutionary” polarity, the false opposition produces a caricatured Luxemburg: where Lenin is hard, intellectual, and singular; Luxemburg is soft, emotional, and complex. This depiction takes many forms, from Bertram Wolfe’s admiration of Luxemburg’s “longing to conquer in storm and passion,” her “slight and weak” body and “large, expressive...beautiful eyes”; to Jonathan Rabb’s novel Rosa, which pursues the poetic soul buried beneath “the woman who shouted down to the crowds.”4

The sexist assumption—that Luxemburg was essentially different from the male socialists of her era, that men can devote themselves to a political cause, but not women—can be seen both in the vitriol hurled at Luxemburg by hostile contemporaries and in ostensibly friendly retrospective studies.

In a review of Letters for the London Review of Books, Jacqueline Rose, for example, rejects the formulaic division between Luxemburg’s “political and private lives” and the notion that her personal correspondence “reveals the human being, the woman, behind the steely revolutionary.”5 But she nonetheless defines Luxemburg in terms of her dissimilarity to her long-time partner Leo Jogiches, and to Lenin. Citing a letter in which Luxemburg argues with Jogiches, Rose asks: “How can we not see in this struggle a rehearsal, or the grounds, of her later critique of Leninism?” Like the late Christopher Hitchens and other positive reviewers of the Letters, Rose accepts and perpetuates the notion that Lenin and Luxemburg represent diametrically opposed traditions.

This myth carries over into discussions of Luxemburg’s relationship to the Communist International (Comintern). One of the papers at last year’s Historical Materialism conference in London, “Rosa Luxemburg’s Attitude Towards the Founding of the Communist International,” argued that although she “appreciated [their] courage,” Luxemburg saw the Bolsheviks as mistaken and “she never would have accepted the Bolshevik Comintern policy” even in the “early years.”6

John Riddell’s work on the early Comintern conference proceedings challenges this narrative. In contrast to the image of an anti-democratic, top-down body dominated by ultra-centralized Bolsheviks, his work finds that there were differences and divisions among the Bolshevik representatives, and that Comintern representatives from outside of Russia played a decisive role. In the 1922 congress, he notes, “the main proponents of united front policy in Germany…had all been comrades of Rosa Luxemburg in the wartime Spartacus League,” and the records indicate that “the concern of Luxemburg and the Spartacists to strengthen ties with the broad masses of workers remained a creative force within the Comintern.”7

In the rest of this article I want to elaborate on this position by reading Luxemburg’s personal letters from the last year of her life, to see what they suggest about her attitude to the Bolsheviks and the prospect of a new International.

Luxemburg’s The Russian Revolution, which she began writing while still in prison, is typically cited by those eager to show her opposition to the Bolsheviks. She did not finish it, as it was published in 1922 after her death. In The Russian Revolution,  Luxemberg offers vigorous criticism of the Bolsheviks—particularly of their agrarian policies, advocacy of national self-determination, and dissolution of the Constituent Assembly—while commending their achievements.

She sees these as faults symptomatic of the daunting conditions facing a national revolution that had not internationalized—which only heightened the need to build socialism internationally.

The letters throw more light on this position. In November 1917, she wrote to Clara Zetkin:

The events in Russia are of amazing grandeur and tragedy. Lenin and his people will not of course be able to win out against the insuperable tangle of chaos, but their attempt, by itself, stands as a deed of world-historical significance and a genuine milestone.

She adds her trademark biting humor: “unlike the ‘milestone’ that was always declared at the close of every doglike-ordinary-crummy-lousy German [SPD] party congress by the blessed Paul” [Singer, co chair of the SPD executive] (November 24, 1917, letter to Clara Zetkin).

This sense that the revolution would not prevail—particularly given the calumny the German Social Democrats heaped on it—is echoed in a letter from the same month to Luise Kautsky, her life-long friend and also wife of Karl Kautsky, a fierce critic of the Bolsheviks:

Are you happy about the Russians? Of course they won’t be able to hold out in this Witches’ Sabbath—not because statistics show such backward economic development in Russia, as your clever spouse has it all worked out, but because the Social Democracy in the highly developed West consists of miserable cowardly dogs, who, while looking on calmly, will let the Russians bleed to death. But a downfall like that is better than “living on for the Fatherland.” It is a world-historical deed, the traces of which will not have disappeared eons from now. I expect even more great things in the coming years, but I would like to admire the course of world history—not only through the bars on the cell window.  (November 24, 1917, letter to Luise Kautsky.)

While her pessimism persisted, news from Russia also gave Luxemburg new hope after a period in which her continued incarceration constantly threatened to break her usually indomitable spirit.

This can be seen in a letter to Sophie Liebknecht, another of Luxemburg’s confidantes, and wife of her close comrade Karl Liebknecht, in which she addresses alarmist stories about revolutionary Russia in the bourgeois press. She writes: “The revolution has cleared the air so much of the miasmas and stuffy atmosphere of reaction” (December 24, 1917, letter to Sophie Liebknecht, 453).

In the long months that follow, we only get occasional references to Russia, which of course bespeaks the close censorship of her correspondence. In the summer of 1918 she writes to her Polish comrade Julian Marchlewski of her frustration at the continuing restraints on what information she is able to receive and on what she can express: “I can communicate only opinions and impressions because [information] reaches me only third-hand about the actual state of affairs [in Soviet Russia],” but “the impression given me by the latest turn of events is generally abysmal. One would like to give the Bolsheviks a terrible tongue-lashing.” She goes on to say: “Perhaps these things don’t make such a disastrous impression on you there, in the midst of the chaos, as they do here” (466).

This letter and others that follow allude to the fact that Luxemburg’s comrades in the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), the Polish party she helped found and lead from exile, had joined the Bolsheviks. Many SDKPiL members took  positions in the revolutionary government and army. She wrote to one of them, Stepan Bratman-Brodowski, in September 1918:

I see that you too are not totally enthusiastic about Joz’s8 activities. (468)…At present one must constantly take into consideration the disastrous situation of the entire history there in their country, and that very much restricts criticism. And yet, as you yourself will surely see in a short time, it is impossible to remain completely silent. (469)

At the end of September, she writes again to Julian Marchlewski in response to his letter about the “disastrous situation” in Russia: “It is clear that, under such conditions, i.e., being caught in the pincers of the imperialist powers from all sides, neither socialism nor the dictatorship of the proletariat can become a reality, but at the most [what will come about is] a caricature of both” (473). She proceeds to criticize the Brest treaty, which she opposed, and new supplementary agreements. Such comments are seized upon by those eager to establish Luxemburg’s antipathy to the Bolsheviks.

But what is striking about these passages is the extent to which Luxemburg is identifying the conditions over and above the policies of the Bolsheviks. Also, she is just as critical of “her own” group in Germany, the Spartacists. Of its newspaper, Spartacus Letters, and other literature she writes, “The work has gone to the dogs since Leo’s illness. They are all softies, and besides they have ‘no time’ for the work…. Surely some terrible things will have to happen before these people bestir themselves and start to move” (475).

What is most evident is her fear that the Russian Revolution will not spread. In the same letter, she writes, “The scandal for socialism will be definitive if once again peace is dictated by cannon—American cannon this time—rather than by the action of the proletariat. Nevertheless, perhaps something will start to move under the pressure of events” (475).

A month later, something did “start to move”: a revolt by sailors in the German navy on November 3–4 led to a general mutiny and general strike, and the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils across Germany. Within days, the monarchy was toppled, the Kaiser exiled, political prisoners released, and a republic proclaimed. The start of the German Revolution freed Luxemburg from prison and gave renewed vigor to the prospect of international socialist revolution. The day after her release, Luxemburg spoke at a mass rally and demonstration at Breslau before going to Berlin where she threw herself into revolutionary activity, helping to launch the KPD, the German Communist Party, at the end of December. A letter to Clara Zetkin from December 15, 1918, conveys a sense of what those last months of her life were like:

I am chained to the editorial office, and every day I am there until midnight…on top of that almost every day, from early in the morning, there are conferences and discussions, and public meetings in between, and as a change of pace every few days there come urgent warnings that Karl and I are threatened by gangs of killers…I have been living this way, in the midst of tumult and turmoil and all in a rush from the first moment… (December 15, 1918, to Clara Zetkin, 487.)

From being the outsider criticizing from afar, she becomes a participant “in the midst of tumult and turmoil” (487), responding to criticisms from those still outside. In answer to a letter from Clara Zetkin criticizing the Spartacists’ nonparticipation in the January elections (something Luxemburg had argued against), she writes,

Our defeat was only the triumph of a rather childish, half-baked, one-dimensional radicalism…. Don’t forget that the “Spartacists” are for the most part a fresh new generation, free of the stupefying traditions of the “grand old party, tried and true”—And that must be viewed in both its aspects. Of light and shade”…. Your judgment of the quite different from ours, because unfortunately you now have no feeling for the details as we do, and moreover, a feeling for the particular situation, for which one would require the experience of direct observation (491).

A slightly earlier letter to Adolf Warski directly addresses the attitude to the Bolsheviks she and her parties in Poland and Germany took. For me, this letter more than any other illuminates her stance on the Comintern:

If our party (in Poland) is full of enthusiasm for Bolshevism and at the same time (in a secretly printed pamphlet) has come out against the Brest peace treaty of the Bolsheviks and against their use of the propaganda slogan “self-determination of nations,” then it is enthusiasm combined with critical thought—what more could we want of ourselves! I too shared all your reservations and misgivings, but I have dropped them on the most important questions, and on many [questions] I did not go as far as you. The use of terror indicates great weakness, certainly, but it is directed against internal enemies who base their hopes on the existence of capitalism outside of Russia, receiving support and encouragement from it. With the coming of the European revolution, the Russian counter-revolutionaries will lose not only support [from abroad] but also—what’s more important—their courage. Thus the Bolshevik use of terror is above all an expression of the weakness of the European proletariat. Certainly, the agrarian relations that have been established are the most dangerous aspect, the worse sore spot of the Russian revolution. But here too there is a truth that applies—even the greatest revolution can accomplish only that which has ripened as a result of [historical] development. (November/early December 1918, 484–85.)

“Enthusiasm combined with critical thought.” Surely this would have been Luxemburg’s continued attitude towards the Comintern, had she not been murdered on January 18. There is every reason to suppose that she would have continued to fight for the internationalization of the revolution alongside Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

This article was delivered as a paper at the Historical Materialism conference held in Toronto in May 2012.

  1. Helen Scott, “Rosa Luxemburg in the Storm of Struggle,” International Socialist Review 81 (Jan–Feb 2012), 30–36. Throught this article, the numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annelies Laschitza, eds. (London: Verso, 2011).
  2. Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 20.
  3. Tamara Deutscher, Not by Politics Alone: The Other Lenin (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1973); Paul Le Blanc, “Luxemburg and Lenin on Organization,” in Paul LeBlanc, ed., Rosa Luxemburg: Reflections and Writings (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999); Helen Scott, “Lenin and Luxemburg,” International Socialist Review 59 (May–June, 2008).
  4. Bertram D. Wolfe, Introduction to The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 23 and 1; Jonathan Rabb, Rosa: A Novel (New York: Random, 2005), 135.
  5. “What more could we want of ourselves!” London Review of Books 33.14 (July 14, 2011).
  6. Ottokar Luban, “Rosa Luxemburg‘s Attitude Towards the Founding of the Communist International,” (
  7. John Riddell, “The Periphery Pushes Back,” (
  8. An editor’s footnote tells us that “Joz” refers not only to Jozef Dzierzynski personally but all the other Polish comrades and the Bolsheviks in Russia as a whole.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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