The names of Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg have often been linked, sometimes with good reason and sometimes also without. It has been said, wrongly, that they shared before 1917 a common view of revolutionary prospects in Russia, Luxemburg like Trotsky supporting the idea of permanent revolution. With better foundation it has been noted that there was, in their respective tactical inferences from the events of 1905, a shared and early awareness of the organizational inertia and conservatism then taking shape within European socialism and a like belief in the efficacy of mass struggle as the antidote to this. Partisans of the self-activity of the masses, they put their faith in it in face of the dangers of party bureaucracy. Perhaps the most frequent association of the two revolutionaries has been by reference to the similar criticism they directed at Lenin—in the name precisely of proletarian self-activity—in 1904, following the Bolshevik-Menshevik split. That is the subject of the present article. For, if the fact of this common criticism is widely known, the two works in which it was articulated are differentially so. The full measure and the details of their congruence have not been generally accessible because Trotsky’s Our Political Tasks had to wait some three-quarters of a century before it became available in translation in the major European languages. Until very recently what was known of it, save by a small number of scholars, was known second-hand: some of its ideas; a few quotations; one passage in particular on the logic of political ‘substitutionism’, oft-cited, usually from Isaac Deutscher’s work. Given the extent to which the diffusion of Trotsky’s writings has depended on the efforts and resources of his own followers, the fate of Our Political Tasks is not really surprising. That its republication was accorded no priority stood in continuity with the reticence towards it of Trotsky himself. In fact, in the works of his later years there are only a couple of direct references to this youthful polemic. In one, he speaks of it as immature and mistaken in its criticism of Lenin, although he does allow that it justly characterized the mentality of some of the party activists, of the day, for whom the principles of centralism had come to displace any need to rely upon the workers. In the other, his judgment is severe without qualification. On the question of organization Our Political Tasks, according to Trotsky, ‘developed views very close to those of Rosa Luxemburg’ and her views on organization are described by him as ‘errors’.footnote1

A comparison of his pamphlet with Luxemburg’s Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy shows the resemblance between them to be close indeed. I shall not undertake a comprehensive account of it here, but propose only to explore one important area of the common ground. My interest, however, is not in whether Trotsky and Luxemburg were in error or were justified in their criticisms, and these writings of theirs are searched neither for evidence of their short-comings vis-mvis Lenin nor for telling insights concerning the ulterior development of the Bolshevik Party. This is already well enough rehearsed. I want rather to identify in the positions they put forward, along with something of indubitable value, an ambiguity in the concept of party and, hence, a problem about the political representation of the working class; and to suggest that this problem, sometimes thought to be a specific feature of the Leninist idea of a revolutionary vanguard, was part of an older orthodoxy that Lenin shared with his Marxist critics. This is not, it should be said, an argument that revolutionary Marxism as such is irredeemably flawed, compromised and so forth. It is, rather, an indication of matters left unsettled and incomplete in classical doctrine, even where it spoke most vehemently for socialist democracy and on behalf of the self-emancipation of the working class.

We may begin from a passage of Luxemburg’s Organizational Questions, setting out the ‘contradictory’ nature of the struggle for socialism: ‘The world-historical advance of the proletariat to its victory is a process whose particularity lies in the fact that here, for the first time in history, the masses of the people themselves, against all ruling classes, are expressing their will. But this will can only be realized outside of and beyond the present society. On the other hand, this will can only develop in the daily struggle with the established order, thus, only within its framework. The unification of the great mass of the people with a goal that goes beyond the whole established order, of the daily struggle with the revolutionary overthrow—this is the dialectical contradiction of the Social-Democratic movement which must develop consistently between two obstacles: the loss of its mass character and the abandonment of its goal, becoming a sect and becoming a bourgeois reformist movement.’footnote2 Rosa Luxemburg’s use of these lines here was not her first. She reproduced them very nearly verbatim from her earlier Social Reform or Revolution, which was well-known for its cogent statement of the anti-revisionist case.footnote3 We may assume that Trotsky was acquainted with them from one or both of these sources. In his own polemic against Lenin, allusion is made to hers.footnote4 In any case, whether because, knowing them, he also had these lines consciously in mind during the composition of Our Political Tasks; or only because the thought they express is in effect a familiar part of the Marxist legacy—the proletariat constituting there at once offspring and grave-digger of capitalism, produced by and formed within it, but bearing the prospect of its replacement by socialism—the fact is that there is a striking parallelism in the manner whereby Luxemburg delineates the twin pitfalls of reformism and sectarianism and Trotsky puts back-to-back, as it were, the Russian ‘economists’ and those charged by him with ‘substitutionism’.

He poses the issue in terms of the consciousness of the workers and their objective interests: ‘Between these two factors—the objective fact of class interest and class awareness thereof—there lies a path filled with the jolts and blows of life, mistakes and disappointments, waverings and defeats. The problem of tactical wisdom for the Party of the proletariat is wholly enclosed between these two factors and consists in discovering how to shorten and make easier the path which lies between them. . . . The Party, basing itself upon the given level of consciousness of the proletariat, intervenes in every major political event, striving to bend the resultant in favour of the immediate interests of the proletariat and, what is even more important, striving to make its intervention a means of raising the level of the proletariat’s consciousness. . . . The bigger the gap separating the objective and subjective factors . . . the more natural is the appearance in the Party of “methods” which in one form or another represent surrender to the colossal difficulty of the task imposed upon us. Like the political self-denial of the “economists”, the political “substitutionism” of their antipodes is nothing but an attempt by a young Social-Democratic Party to “play a trick” on history.’ Neither ‘economists’ nor ‘politicals’, according to Trotsky, really face the questions of political tactics entailed by the distance between the proletariat’s consciousness and socialism. The ‘economists’ only register its subjective interests, leaving everything else to the natural course of events; thus, trail along behind it and march ‘at history’s tail’. The ‘politicals’ begin from its objective interests and, confident in their knowledge of them, act in place of the class and attempt ‘to transform history into their own tail’.footnote5 Luxemburg for her part, it may be remarked, hard by the lines I have reproduced from her article, chides Lenin and his supporters in very similar terms, writing sarcastically, ‘. . . the “ego” of the Russian revolutionary . . . declares itself once again as the all-powerful director of history’; she speaks of it also as having ‘played more than one trick’ on the socialist movement in Russia.footnote6 However, more important than such incidental echoes is a deeper thematic correspondence. In the contexts in which these passages from Luxemburg and Trotsky are respectively embedded they can be seen to be associated with the same theoretical message. It may be formulated in three linked pairs of oppositions purporting to contrast Lenin’s with a more adequate stand-point.

The first and most obvious of them, no longer very interesting perhaps for having been gone over many times, is summed up in a slogan from Our Political Tasks: ‘Long live the self-activity of the proletariat—and away with political substitutionism!’footnote7 About this let it suffice to say that Luxemburg and Trotsky alike accuse Lenin of a sectarian error. In the political space—defined by both of them in an idiom of forward movement—between the proletariat, its consciousness and its struggles, on the one hand, and the final socialist goal, on the other, they accuse him of being too remote from the former out of a certainty of standing for, and knowing how to reach, the latter. Thus where, for Luxemburg, the socialist movement is the first historically to count on ‘the organization and the independent direct action of the masses’ and ‘there is no ready-made, pre-established, detailed set of tactics which a central committee can teach its Social-Democratic membership as if they were army recruits’, Lenin’s views, she suggests, do precisely presuppose an ‘omniscient’ and ‘infallible’ central committee.footnote8 For Trotsky, likewise, ‘the guarantee of the stability of our Party must be sought in its basis, in an active and self-acting proletariat’, and he protests against the ‘utterly fantastic’ and ‘purely rationalist’ conception according to which its development is to take place ‘solely through the logical extraction, by a central committee . . ., of new tactical and organizational conclusions from certain theoretical premises.’footnote9

The second contrast is simply the institutional correlate of the first, and opposes the requirements of socialist democracy to those of Leninist organizational centralism. The opinion of Lenin’s critics about his centralism is, again, familiar enough not to have to be laboured here. The best-known lines of Our Political Tasks—envisaging the successive ‘substitutions’ of, first, the party organization for the party, then, the central committee for the party organization, and finally, a dictator for the central committee—follow immediately on the passage depicting political ‘substitutionism’ and ‘economism’ as twins.footnote10 Rosa Luxemburg’s thoughts about what she calls ‘ultra-centralism’ are no different, its spirit being according to her a ‘sterile’, policing one: to control the party, to narrow the movement rather than develop it.footnote11 As to the appeal to norms of socialist democracy which both she and Trotsky make against Lenin, it is, familiar as it may also be, the problematic area forming the main concern of this article and will be examined once we have at our disposal further argument which is germane to it.

For it is best approached in fact by way of the third and last of the aforesaid oppositions, one that has received much less attention than the others as far as I know. We may speak of it as contrasting an historical with a formalist political conception. I take the terms of the antithesis from Trotsky, but let us see first how it is expressed by Luxemburg. She attacks the notion that opportunism can be regarded simply as an alien presence within the labour movement, introduced there by forces that are representative of the bourgeoisie. She does concur with a definition of it according to which opportunism undermines the class independence of the proletarian movement, serving to subordinate it to bourgeois interests and ambitions. She concedes also that one of its sources is the large number of non-proletarians that gravitate to social democracy in a decomposing capitalist society, though she goes on to add that social democracy must not turn them away but learn how properly to integrate them and their dissatisfactions within a revolutionary socialist politics. However, she insists that opportunism has an additional source in the very nature of the struggle for socialism, as it is set out by her in the passage we have taken as our point of departure. If, in Marxist terms, the irreplaceable foundation of that struggle is the ‘will’ of the working class, a political will that is only formed and can only develop in the framework and the conflicts of bourgeois society, then this is bound to leave its mark, negatively as well as positively, on the course of the struggle itself. Imposed or merely encouraged by the initial, capitalist framework, there will be both misconceptions and mistakes. The socialist movement has to learn through hard experience.