Luxemburg and the Fourth International

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Author(s) Leon Trotsky
Written 24 June 1935

First published: New International, Vol. II No. 8, August 1935, pp. 168–169.
Collection(s): New International

Efforts are now being made in France and elsewhere to construct a so-called Luxemburgism as an entrenchment for the left centrists against the Bolshevik-Leninist. This question may acquire a considerable significance. It may perhaps be necessary to devote a more extensive article in the near future to real and alleged Luxemburgism. I wish to touch here only upon the essential features of the question.

We have more than once taken up the cudgels of Rosa Luxemburg against the impudent and stupid misrepresentations of Stalin and his bureaucracy. And we shall continue to do so. In doing so we are not prompted by any sentimental considerations, but by demands of historical-materialist criticism. Our defense of Rosa Luxemburg is not, however, unconditional. The weak sides of Rosa Luxemburgís teachings have been laid bare both theoretically and practically. The SAP[1] people and kindred elements (see, for example, the dilettante intellectual “proletarian cultural”: French Spartacus, the periodical of the socialist students appearing in Belgium, and oftentimes also the Belgian Action Socialiste, etc.) make use only of the weak sides and the inadequacies which were by no means decisive in Rosa; they generalize and exaggerate the weaknesses to the utmost and build up a thoroughly absurd system on that basis. The paradox consist in this, that in their latest turn the Stalinists, too, without acknowledging or even understanding it, come close in theory to the caricatured negative sides of Luxemburgism, to say nothing of the traditional centrists and left centrists in the social democratic camp.

There is no gainsaying that Rosa Luxemburg impassionately counterposed the spontaneity of mass actions to the “victory-crowned” conservative policy of the German social democracy especially after the Revolution of 1905. This counterposition had a thoroughly revolutionary and progressive character. At a much earlier date that Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg grasped the retarding character of the ossified party and trade-union apparatus and began a struggle against it. Inasmuch as she counted upon the inevitable accentuation of class conflicts, she always predicted the certainty of the independent elemental appearance of the masses against the will and against the line of march of officialdom. In these broad historical outlines, Rosa was proved right. For the Revolution of 1918 was “spontaneous”, that is, it was accomplished by the masses against all the provisions and all the precautions of the party officialdom. On the other hand, the whole of Germanyís subsequent history amply showed that spontaneity alone is far from enough for success; Hitler’s regime is a weighty argument against the panacea of spontaneity.

Rosa herself never confined herself to the mere theory of spontaneity, like Parvus, for example, who later bartered his social revolutionary fatalism for the most revolting fatalism. In contrast to Parvus, Rosa Luxemburg exerted herself to educate the revolutionary wing of the proletariat in advance and to bring it together organizationally as far as possible. In Poland, she built up a very rigid independent organization. The most that can be said is that in her historical-philosophical evaluation of the labor movement, the preparatory selection of the vanguard, in comparison with the mass actions that were to be expected, fell too short with Rosa; whereas Lenin – without consoling himself with the miracles of future actions – took the advanced workers and constantly and tirelessly welded them together into firm nuclei, illegally or legally, in the mass organizations or underground, by means of a sharply defined program.

Rosa’s theory of spontaneity was a wholesome weapon against the ossified apparatus of reformism. By the fact that it was often directed against Lenin’s work of building up a revolutionary apparatus, it revealed – to be sure, only in embryo – its reactionary features. With Rosa herself this occurred only episodically. She was much too realistic in the revolutionary sense to develop the elements of the theory of spontaneity into a consummate metaphysics. In practice, she herself, as has already been said, undermined this theory at every step. After the revolution of November 1918, she began the ardent labor of assembling the proletarian vanguard. Despite her theoretically very weak manuscript of the Soviet Revolution, written in prison but never published by her, Rosa’s subsequent work allows the sure conclusion that, day by day, she was moving closer to Lenin’s theoretically clearly-delineated conception concerning conscious leadership and spontaneity. (It must surely have been this circumstance that prevented her from making public her manuscript against Bolshevik policy which was later so shamefully abused.)

Let us again attempt to apply the conflict between spontaneous mass actions and purposeful organizational work to the present epoch. What a mighty expenditure of strength and selflessness the tolling masses of all the civilized and half-civilized countries have exerted since the world war! Nothing in the previous history of mankind could compare with it. To this extent Rosa Luxemburg was entirely right as against the philistines, the corporal and the blockheads of straight-marching “victory-crowned” bureaucratic conservatism. But it is just the squandering of these immeasurable energies that forms the basis of the great depression in the proletariat at in the successful fascism advance. Without the slightest exaggeration it may be said: the whole world situation is determined by the crisis of the proletarian leadership. The field of the labor movement is today still encumbered with huge remnants of the old bankrupt organizations. After the countless sacrifices and disappointments, the bulk of the European proletariat, at least, has withdrawn into its shell. The decisive lesson which it has drawn, consciously or half-consciously, from the bitter experiences, reads: great actions require a great leadership. For current affairs, the workers still give their votes to the old organizations. Their votes – but by no means their boundless confidence. On the other hand, after the miserable collapse of the Third International, it is much harder to move them to bestow their confidence upon a new revolutionary organization. That’s just where the crisis of the proletarian leadership lies. To sing a monotonous song about indefinite future mass actions in this situation, in contrast to the purposeful selection of the cadres of a new International, means to carry on a thoroughly reactionary work. That’s just where the role of the SAP lies in the “historical process”. A left-wing SAP man of the Old Guard can, of course, summon up his Marxian recollection in order to stem the tide of theoretical spontaneity-barbarism. These purely literary protective measures change nothing in the fact that the pupils of a Miles, the precious author of the peace resolution and the no less precious author of the article in the French edition of the Youth Bulletin, carry on the most disgraceful spontaneity nonsense even in the ranks of the SAP. The practical policies of Schwab (the artful “not speaking out what is” and the eternal consolation of the future mass actions and the spontaneous “historical process”) also signifies nothing but a tactical exploitation of a thoroughly distorted and bowdlerized Luxemburgism. And to the extent that the “left-wingers”, the “Marxists” fail to make an open attack upon this theory and practice of their own party, their anti-Miles articles acquire the character of the search for a theoretical alibi. Such an alibi first really become necessary when one takes part in a deliberate crime.

The crisis of the proletarian leadership cannot, of course, be overcome by means of an abstract formula. It is a question of an extremely humdrum process. But not of a purely “historical” process, that is, of the objective premises of conscious activity, but of an uninterrupted chain of ideological, political and organizational measures for the purpose of fusing together the best, most conscious elements of the world proletariat beneath a spotless banner, elements whose number and self-confidence must be constantly strengthened, whose connections with wider sections of the proletariat must be developed and deepened – in a word: to restore to the proletariat, under new and highly difficult and onerous conditions, his historical leadership. The latest spontaneity confusionists have just as little right to refer Rosa as for miserable Comintern bureaucrats have to refer to Lenin. Put aside the incidentals which developments have overcome, and we can, with full justification, place our work for 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.

  1. SAP (Sozialistiche Arbeiterspartei – Socialist Workers Party): a centrist German group formed in 1931 through a merger of left social democrats and former Right Communists, some of whose leaders briefly supported Trotsky’s advocacy of a new international in 1933; most of its members eventually returned to the social democracy. [Ed.]