I think it is important to avoid giving the impression of an isolated critique of Lenin and the Bolshevik project as such. We have to look at Rosa Luxemburg’s criticisms of this project – and the support she gave it – by reflecting on how she responded not only to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, but also to the first Russian revolution of 1905, which Lenin is famous for being the dress rehearsal for the Second Revolution.

To understand the dilemmas these revolutions posed for the international labor movement, it is necessary to reflect on how the socialist movement as a whole viewed both 1905 and 1917. What Luxemburg had to say about the Bolshevik project can be found in periods, and therefore can be constructed more consistently if we think of the two together.

Starting with the revolution of 1905: It found the socialist movement deeply divided. In Western Europe there were socialist parties which were making electoral gains and united in recognizing the authority of the International, while also being deeply divided on questions of principle and tactics. In Russia, there was no direct equivalent to the reform versus revolution debate because the Socialists all had to work underground and risk their lives. They were divided on questions of membership and party organization.

In 1905, there was no question of legal recognition of the labor movement, of parliamentary struggle, or of compromise with the ruling elite. These were all luxuries of the German Social Democrats that the Russians did not have. What you have had is a revolution that has erupted after decades of exploitation, impoverishment and authoritarian violence. The 1905 revolution was not so much a single revolution as the sum of a number of events: mass strikes, border disturbances, mass demonstrations, etc.

At that time, Luxemburg was obviously very interested in the Russian Revolution and was following events very closely. She published several interventions in which she debated with Lenin on the role of the masses and of the party in revolutionary circumstances. Following these debates with Lenin, she also tried to persuade her colleagues in the SPD to adopt the mass strike as a political weapon to advance the workers’ cause in Germany.

She smuggled into the Russian part of Poland and tried to reach Warsaw. She was arrested and imprisoned again, after a personal journey that sought to link the struggles of Polish, German and Russian workers. One of his most famous pamphlets, The mass strike, the political party and the unions, was the result of his analysis of these events. Luxembourg came to Germany with these lessons from the Russian Revolution and spoke at the party congress in 1905 about the gains the Russians had made and what could be learned from Russian social democracy.

August Bebel, one of the party’s founders, joked over his speech that there was so much talk of blood and revolution that he kept looking at his shoes to see if they weren’t already full. of blood. It is the reputation that she developed for her engagement in the revolution of 1905 and her reflections on what one could learn from this underground revolutionary movement which had developed under circumstances very different from those of the social- German democracy. In a way, her position as a Polish-born explains her position as an outsider on these issues: she saw better than others that the circumstances in Russia were very different from those in Germany and called for a different approach.

Luxemburg reflected on the revolution of 1917 in another essay titled “The Russian Revolution”, which is often seen as the synthesis of his thoughts on the subject. It was published after his death and was actually a defense of the October Revolution. Written while in prison, Luxemburg’s essay praises the Bolshevik revolution as a sign of the possibility of a proletarian revolutionary struggle, even under deeply oppressive circumstances. At the same time as she praised the Bolsheviks, she drew attention to what she saw as some of the limits of the movement and how they were reflected in the relations between the party elites and the oppressed masses. .

On the one hand, she criticized some of the policies the Bolsheviks implemented when they came to power: the granting of land to peasants, for example, or their continued insistence on the right to national self-determination. On the other hand, she also criticized the suppression of what she believed to be revolutionary democracy. She drew attention to the bureaucratization of parties and to some of the measures that have been taken to limit freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association. She believed that the Bolsheviks were beginning to divorce from socialism and democracy in an extremely dangerous manner and one which concentrated power in the hands of a few members of the party elite.

It was in this context that his most critical remarks on the Russian Revolution were raised, citing the risks of suppressing dissent and the dangers of censorship. She spoke about what this meant for the revolutionary movement as a whole. More insightfully, she raised the question of what would happen when the revolution was thus brought about, and how she risked concentrating power in a class of party bureaucrats who would no longer be linked to the masses and their struggle, and who were beginning to develop their own interests and consolidate their power in a deeply problematic way. It is also in this context that one must read one of his most famous sentences, “Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently”.

What made this review particularly interesting was that it was extremely perceptive in seeing what happens to a revolution when its leaders, the vanguard, gradually become alienated and separated from the demands of the masses, and from a process. revolutionary struggle, which was itself a learning process in which the masses could only learn to govern by participating in the struggle and creating institutions that could represent them.

Luxembourg, however, was also extremely hostile to the efforts of the German Social Democrats to show that the Bolshevik revolution should never have taken place, and that the proletariat should never have come to power in a revolutionary way because the SPD method was the right one. She was skeptical of the arguments advanced by people like Karl Kautsky and others that Russia was not ripe for a revolution.

She stressed that she was in favor of this revolutionary effort and the process of mass involvement. In explaining why, Luxemburg insisted on the fact that it was important that the revolutionaries in Russia exercise a “dictatorship”. However, as she said, it would not be the dictatorship of one party or a small clique, but rather the dictatorship of the entire working class, which would occur with the active participation of the popular masses and democratically.

Again, this is one of those things that may at first glance seem contradictory: How could a dictatorship also be democratic? – but if you think about the role of the masses and how Rosa Luxemburg reflected on political emancipation, that makes sense. This makes sense when you think of the democratic dictatorship as a kind of emergency measure that would be truly representative of the oppressed people and not centrally controlled by a single party.