As is well-known, a number of different strategic lines on the nature of the Russian revolution crystallized during and immediately after 1905, out of a debate which received its impetus from the revolutionary upheaval of that year. Rosa Luxemburg was a participant in this debate within Russian and European Social Democracy. Her contribution is recorded in some of her articles and speeches of the period. These, and later writings, offer a coherent formulation of her general alignment in relation to the three contemporary conceptions provided, respectively, by the Mensheviks, by Lenin and by Trotsky. The present article documents, and tries to resolve, the deep confusion which exists concerning Luxemburg’s attitude toward the Russian revolution in the period before 1917.

In 1931, Stalin ventured a little essay in the historiography of the European socialist movement. Its main purpose was to assert that the struggle against Kautsky and the spd ‘centre’ had been undertaken earlier and more energetically by Lenin than by Luxemburg and the German Left Social-Democrats. The opposite is in fact the truth. Luxemburg had been doing battle with spd orthodoxy for nearly a decade when Lenin first became aware of its shortcomings; she broke with Kautsky in 1910, fully four years before the spd’s response to the outbreak of war revealed to Lenin his own misappraisal of that party and its theoretical ‘Pope’. In any case, in the course of denouncing this truth as a slander (to ‘be branded as such and not made the subject of discussion’), Stalin also let it be understood that henceforth Rosa Luxemburg was to be regarded as one of the main architects of the theory of permanent revolution: ‘In 1905, disagreement developed between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in Russia on the question of the character of the Russian revolution . . . What was the attitude of the German Left Social-Democrats, of Parvus and Rosa Luxemburg, to this controversy? They invented the utopian and semi-Menshevik (sic) scheme of permanent revolution . . . and opposed this scheme to the Bolshevik scheme of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. Subsequently, this semi-Menshevik scheme of permanent revolution was caught up by Trotsky . . . and transformed into a weapon of struggle against Leninism.’ Luxemburg’s responsibility for inventing the theory and opposing it to the Bolshevik conception was ranked by Stalin amongst ‘the most generally known facts of history’.footnote1 Wholly in keeping with the spirit of his essay, this was, however, less a comment on the differential epistemological status of various facts than something in the nature of the latest ultimatum. Six years earlier he had himself chastised the unfortunate Radek for allegedly attributing the same theory to Luxemburg. ‘It is not true’, Stalin had then written, ‘that the theory of “permanent revolution” . . . was advanced in 1905 by Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky. Actually, this theory was advanced by Parvus and Trotsky.’footnote2

Stalin’s essay soon drew a reply from Trotsky himself. Having set the record straight with regard to Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s relationship to Kautsky before the First World War, Trotsky went on to deal with the authorship of the theory of permanent revolution. By now ascribing this to Luxemburg, he pointed out, Stalin was not only contradicting his own earlier assertion but also coming forward with a ‘new’ and ‘unexpected history of the origin of the theory’. Trotsky also suggested, however, that Stalin’s approach to historical questions, despite its vulgarity and unscrupulousness, had here generated a conclusion with a certain anachronistic rationale: ‘[Stalin] approaches every question as if that question were born only today and stood apart from all other questions. [He] contributes his judgements entirely depending upon whatever personal interest of his is uppermost and most urgent today . . . Rosa Luxemburg does not appear to him in the perspective of the German, Polish, and international workers’ movement of the last halfcentury. No, she is to him each time a new, and, besides, an isolated figure, regarding whom he is compelled in every . . . situation to ask himself anew, “Who goes there, friend or foe?”. Unerring instinct has this time whispered to the theoretician of socialism in one country that the shade of Rosa Luxemburg is irreconcilably inimical to him.’footnote3

The enmity postulated in this last assertion is by no means as speculative as the terminology may make it seem. Not only was Luxemburg’s commitment to proletarian democracy quite incompatible with the practice of Stalinism. The consistent internationalism of her life and work was just as incompatible with the theory of socialism in one country.footnote4 More specifically, in assessing the significance of the Russian revolution during and after 1917, she did adopt a perspective essentially identical with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Since Stalin was now writing in a context where, thanks to his own efforts, that theory existed in antagonistic relation to the idea of socialism in one country, he had good reason to detect a link between Luxemburg’s political legacy and the Trotskyist opposition. With equally good reason Trotsky later placed the work of building the Fourth International ‘under the sign of the “three L’s”, that is, not only under the sign of Lenin, but also of Luxemburg and Liebknecht’.footnote5 But of course all this leaves untouched the question of Luxemburg’s connection with the theory of permanent revolution in the period before 1917. On that point, Trotsky, in his reply to Stalin, did no more than to register surprise and scepticism at her newly disclosed responsibility for its origin.

Elsewhere, however, he had himself connected her with the theory, albeit in a more limited way. At the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Party, held in London in May 1907, Trotsky noted that Luxemburg, in her interventions there, was espousing a view virtually indistinguishable from his own. Subsequently, referring to this occasion in his autobiography, he wrote: ‘On the question of the so-called permanent revolution, Rosa took the same stand as I did.’footnote6 So expressed, even this more restricted claim is inaccurate. It is true that there was an important similarity between Luxemburg’s and Trotsky’s perspectives before 1917: both of them made the same assessment of the proletariat’s leading role, and of its relationship to the other major classes, in the Russian revolution. Since much of the London Congress was devoted to a discussion of just that issue, it is also true that the common ground between them there was considerable and manifest. Trotsky’s autobiographical contention, that Luxemburg’s position at the Congress was the same as his own, undoubtedly refers to this area of overlap which was real enough. The claim is misleading, despite it, because before 1917 Rosa Luxemburg did not accept the central and decisive element in the theory of permanent revolution, the one which separated Trotsky from all of his contemporaries before 1917, not only from the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, but even from Parvus who genuinely had been instrumental in shaping Trotsky’s thinking on the subject. She did not share Trotsky’s view that the vanguard role of the proletariat in the Russian revolution would ‘destroy the barriers between the minimum and maximum programme of Social Democracy’, would forge ‘an unbroken chain’ between its bourgeois-democratic and socialist tasks, had therefore rendered obsolete the reigning orthodoxy of distinct and separate stages.footnote7 In this respect Luxemburg’s views were more closely similar to Lenin’s than to the theory of permanent revolution.

A legend to the contrary persists nevertheless and it is easy to see why. Stalin and Trotsky both laid the basis for it in different ways. Mutual antagonists in a comprehensive political and ideological confrontation which opposed them to one another on most things, they seemed at least to agree that she had had something to do with the theory in its early stages, whether by ‘inventing’ it or by endorsing it on one occasion shortly after its inception. Add to this that, in the last two years of her life, she did in effect endorse it, and a teleological reading of her work will do the rest. If one projects her later into her earlier conceptions, the partial similarity between these earlier conceptions and Trotsky’s views can be taken for a simple identity. The operation is the more tempting since certain of her formulations from the earlier period, if taken out of context, sound as if they might have been written by Trotsky. For example, in 1906, in her pamphlet on the mass strike, she characterized the Russian revolution ‘not so much as the last successor of the old bourgeois revolutions as the forerunner of the new series of proletarian revolutions of the West’.footnote8 The sound here is deceptive precisely because it has been set loose from its place in Luxemburg’s own orchestration. But it may help to account for the significant number of writers who, explicitly or implicitly, assimilate her perspective to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

What they all have in common apart from being wrong, more accurately, the cause (or perhaps consequence) of their being wrong, is that they offer no detailed analysis of textual sources to substantiate the interpretation of Luxemburg they thereby make. Some simply make it in a general way without citing any sources.footnote9 Others make it by cursorily repeating the claim that she endorsed Trotsky’s position at the London Congress.footnote10 Yet others do so by referring, without further analysis, to her pamphlet on the mass strike or to other writings of the same period.footnote11 As will be seen, these sources in Luxemburg’s work fail when pursued. Here we simply take a closer look at one of the writers in question, by way of illustration. Robert Looker argues that ‘As early as 1906 in her Mass Strike pamphlet, Luxemburg had rejected the schematic Menshevik view’—in which he is right—‘that Russia could as yet only hope to achieve a bourgeois revolution and that socialists must therefore confine their demands to the requirements of that revolution’—in which he is wrong, the above quotation from that pamphlet notwithstanding. What Rosa Luxemburg rejected about the Mensheviks’ view was not the bourgeois-democratic objective of the Russian revolution but the strategic inferences they drew from this, such as the bourgeoisie’s leading role, the necessity of an alliance with it, the desirability of supporting the Cadets, and so forth. Like Lenin, she disagreed with the Mensheviks about the methods necessary to win the most far-reaching demands consistent with the revolution’s bourgeois character and not about this character itself. To make the same point differently, what Looker defines, inadequately, as the Menshevik view was in fact common to all Social-Democrats before 1917, except Trotsky and including Luxemburg. He thus helps to perpetuate the legend which assimilates the views of these two in that period.