The Myth Of “Luxemburgism”

Rosa Luxemburg has been besmirched from the day of her murder, sometimes even by her closest associates. It is time to clear her name and set the record straight, dispelling the legends surrounding her life and legacy.

The Acheron In Motion
33 min readJan 1, 2021

“And this is the legacy of Luxemburgism — the distortion of one’s work until it is utterly unrecognisable.”

John Peter Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (1966)


Rosa Luxemburg and her legacy are indescribably diverse: they have passed from periods of persecution and rediscovery, fanatical hostility and magnanimous blossoming. Nevertheless, we must reckon with the ultimate result of the internet meeting this fabulous revolutionary — the so-called “Luxemburgism.” The existence of this label would be all too less tragic and ironic, had it not had a bloody past of intellectual suppression and persona non grata-fication. Soon after Luxemburg’s death, “Luxemburgism” appeared as a pejorative term to describe her “errors” and therefore became synonymous with everything heretical, apostate and deviationist. “Luxemburgism” meant spontaneity, erroneous political economy, “national nihilism,” anti-Bolshevism, semi-Menshevism, Centrism and later even Trotskyism. There is not a negative descriptor from the Communist circles of the 20th century that have not been used to besmirch the thought of the limping Polish lady.

But why was this the case? Where does “Luxemburgism” come from and most importantly, does it deserve the hostility it begat? Of course, to answer these questions, one must first explore Luxemburg’s own views and “ideology.” This is difficult to do, when roughly 70% of her works are unavailable in English, but technology and decades of scholarly efforts have made sure that we have some access to her Polish and German writings as well. Therefore, it is inexcusable to create notions about Luxemburg from a single book or the “classics” she produced, without looking deeper into the historical and theoretical details.

Against The Narrative Of A Libertarian Luxemburg

There has been confusion over Luxemburg’s stances ever since she was brutally tortured and murdered by the proto-Fascist Freikorps. Some consider her to be a Left Communist, some paint her as a Leninist, and some have even argued that it was possible she wasn’t even a Marxist at all. [1] Nevertheless, this persistent uncertainty over her “ideology” has sparked many debates and discussions in Marxist groups.

More “Libertarian-leaning” Marxists like to assert, that Luxemburg was a Council Communist. This view is quite ahistorical and confuses words with substance, as one of the main sources of this claim happens to be Luxemburg’s aggressive insistence of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, exemplified by her 1918 pamphlet, “What Does The Spartacus League Want?” where she raised “political and social” demands, such as:

“2. Elimination of all parliaments and municipal councils, and takeover of their functions by workers’ and soldiers’ councils, and of the latter’s committees and organs.

3. Election of workers’ councils in all Germany by the entire adult working population of both sexes, in the city and the countryside, by enterprises, as well as of soldiers’ councils by the troops (officers and capitulationists excluded). The right of workers and soldiers to recall their representatives at any time.

4. Election of delegates of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils in the entire country to the central council of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, which is to elect the executive council as the highest organ of the legislative and executive power.”

In the very same piece, Luxemburg says that “The Spartacus League is not a party that wants to rise to power over the mass of workers or through them.” This is taken as a rejection of Vanguardism and the Party-form and hence the claim that Luxemburg was a Councilist is “substantiated.” However, this is completely erroneous and ignores so much historical and theoretical nuance, that only through ignorance can this conclusion be reached.

Firstly, we must define what a Vanguard is. Simply put, a Vanguard is an organization of socialists, as it usually takes the form of a Communist Party. At least, this is the way Luxemburg most commonly used the word, calling the Social-Democratic Party of Germany “the organised vanguard of the German industrial proletariat” and “the strongest vanguard troop, […] the thinking head of the International.” Otherwise, Vanguardism can refer to a belief that a revolutionary organ of the most class-conscious communists should be at the helm of the revolution, helping the masses direct their forces along socialist lines and invigorating them through intellectual stimulation. The degree of centralism the Vanguard is built with depends on the contemporary conditions, but according to Luxemburg herself, “it is undeniable that a strong tendency toward centralization is inherent in the Social Democratic movement.” [2]

Generally as well, Luxemburg was not only a prominent member of the biggest Socialist Party in the world, but she herself also founded and led a Communist Party in both Poland and Germany — the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL for short) and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) respectively. It would be quite illogical for someone who accepted Vanguardism and directly participated into Parties and elections until the very end of her life to be a Council Communist, which rejects Parliamentarianism and Vanguardism. [3] Regarding the declaration that the Spartacus League was not a Party, this is completely true — it never was. It was an inter-party opposition of the Linksradikale which started as “the Group International,” first allied with SPD but then a part of the USPD (independents). The Spartacus League was dissolved and joined the Communist Party of Germany, co-founded by Luxemburg herself, who drew up its program.

Another aspect of Dutch-German Left Communism Luxemburg is often described as a part of is anti-Parliamentarianism and the rejection of electoralism. While it is true, that Luxemburg moved to a more anti-Parliament stance towards the end of her life, and we see her lambasting “parliamentarian cretinism” many times decades earlier, [4] she still supported participation in elections up until her murder in the same vein as Lenin — to raise class consciousness and spread awareness, rather than thinking socialism would come about through votes and parliament decrees. Disappointed, Luxemburg considered it infantile radicalism to abstain from the National Assembly at the given moment:

“[Luxemburg] does not believe the National Assembly represents the values of socialism. Nevertheless, Luxemburg announces in the Rote Fahne that she intends to use the “platform” of the National Assembly: ‘Just as we exploited the infamous Prussian three-class franchise system in order to fight against the three-class parliament from within the three-class parliament, so will we exploit the election of the National Assembly for the struggle against the National Assembly.’ […] An open “Liebknecht/Luxemburg left list” is brought into play as a proposal. At the end, however, the result of the vote is 62 to 23 in clear support of Otto Rühle’s (Dresden) motion against participation in the elections — a defeat for Luxemburg. It is clear to her that non-participation means isolation. […] Luxemburg’s defeat on the question of participation in the elections to the National Assembly was merely “the triumph of a rather childish, half-baked, one-dimensional radicalism”. It is important not to forget, she writes, that “the ‘Spartacists’ are for the most part a fresh generation, free of the stupefying traditions of the ‘grand old party, tried and true.’” This, she continues, must be ‘viewed in both its aspects, of light and shade’.” [5]

This is how important participation in the elections was for Luxemburg and Liebknecht at the time. So much so, that in the early days of January 1919, the two were absent from meetings regarding the national assembly, citing their sickness. Some authors explain however, [6] that their illness could have been “diplomatic,” choosing to abstain from publicly defending the grave decision of their comrades to not participate in the National Assembly elections, scheduled for January 19th.

Another myth surrounding Luxemburg’s “libertarianism” is that she “opposed Lenin” and hence was anti-authoritarian. Not to mention how inaccurate this declaration is, Luxemburg certainly cannot be faulted for “anti-authoritarianism” deduced from a few out-of-context passages in her “The Russian Revolution.” As a matter of fact, she was much more authoritarian (a word, that is so misused and misunderstood, that it had become completely useless to Marxists even in Marx’s time) than Lenin or Trotsky on some issues, like the National Question or the Agrarian Question. Not only that, but Luxemburg was known to be an iron-willed leader in her own Party, the SDKPiL, and certainly demonstrated the ability to overrule the majority if she felt that her position was more in line with Scientific Socialism:

“Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches, the leaders of the Polish party, made the decision to break off the unity negotiations with the RSDLP on their own, without consulting their membership. This led to a bitter feud within the SDKPiL, in which Luxemburg sidelined Cezaryna Wojnarowkaya — a founder of the party who advocated closer relations with the Russian party. This was one of many signs to come of the extent to which Luxemburg exerted centralized control over the SKDPiL.” [7]

She was known for advocating the suspension of members from the Party if they deviated from the line extremely, challenging the notion that she upheld the bourgeois notion of “free speech.” In her view, the ability to express a different opinion was a vital part of the intellectual life of the Party, however, if this took the form of sabotage, disruption or anything along those lines, she was ready to take extreme decisions and suspend membership.

Luxemburg also warned against taking the will of the majority as a sign of correct policy, which disproves many people’s perception of her as an ultra-democratic figure, who valued it as a virtue:

“Woe to the Social-Democratic party that should ever consider this principle [of legitimate majority rule] authoritative. It would be equivalent to a death sentence on Social Democracy as a revolutionary party.” [8]

In her famous polemic against self-determination, Luxemburg includes “democracy” as something that shouldn’t be viewed uniformly, or as eternally true and correct:

“Dialectic materialism, which is the basis of scientific socialism, has broken once and for all with this type of “eternal” formula. For the historical dialectic has shown that there are no “eternal” truths and that there are no “rights.” … In the words of Engels, “What is good in the here and now, is an evil somewhere else, and vice versa” — or, what is right and reasonable under some circumstances becomes nonsense and absurdity under others. Historical materialism has taught us that the real content of these “eternal” truths, rights, and formulae is determined only by the material social conditions of the environment in a given historical epoch.

On this basis, scientific socialism has revised the entire store of democratic clichés and ideological metaphysics inherited from the bourgeoisie. Present-day Social Democracy long since stopped regarding such phrases as “democracy,” “national freedom,” “equality,” and other such beautiful things as eternal truths and laws transcending particular nations and times. On the contrary, Marxism regards and treats them only as expressions of certain definite historical conditions, as categories which, in terms of their material content and therefore their political value, are subject to constant change, which is the only “eternal” truth.” [9]

Therefore it is abundantly clear to anyone who seriously studies Luxemburg, that she was no “democrat” or a “libertarian,” let alone a Left Communist. It can be concluded with certainty, that Luxemburg’s ideas were far from Council Communism of the time. It isn’t surprising that she advocated for workers’ councils — so did the Bolsheviks, as the word Soviet means nothing but a council (“All power to the Soviets!”). The question, however, revolves around who directs these councils, the Party that connects and organizes them all (i.e. a Vanguard), or the council members themselves, independently and decentrally (we shall not spend any time reaffirming Luxemburg’s hostility towards decetralization, anarchism or syndicalism, which is self-evident to anyone who has seriously engaged with her works)? Luxemburg obviously went with the former option, allying her stances much closer with the Bolsheviks than perhaps even she herself could’ve anticipated.

Against The Narrative Of A Leninist Luxemburg

This taken into account, it is just as clear that Luxemburg was not a Leninist. Many have tried to claim so, but this erases her wide range of disagreements and disputes with Lenin and his theories. The accusation of Leninism also ignores the fact “that terms such as “Luxemburgism” and “Leninism” were contrived after their [Luxemburg and Lenin] deaths, which neither probably anticipated.” [10] Besides, anywhere from the self-determination of nations to the organizational methodology, Luxemburg and Lenin took different stances and subjected each other to friendly critique, abundantly making clear their friendship but also the wide range of their differences.

This is not to forget her close collaboration and agreement with the Bolsheviks on several key issues. 1904–1914 saw the deepest, most comradely work between Luxemburg and Lenin, where they adopted joint resolutions, struggled against the Menshevik theory of the peasantry and much more. Lenin even claimed that “We Bolsheviks can point to great achievements in winning such support. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky — Social Democrats who often write for Russians and to that extent are in our Party — have been won over to our point of view” in his 1909 work, “The Faction of Supporters of Otzovism and God-Building.” Painting Luxemburg as a Leninist erases her contentions, but painting her as an anti-Leninist erases her strong support of the movement as well. That is why any person utilizing such descriptors has an underlying agenda of morphing Luxemburg into a convenient ideologue onto whom they can project their beliefs.

Luxemburg as an anti-Leninist figure has been propagated both by Council Communists and surprisingly even self-described Leninists as well (we shall touch upon this in the section on “Luxemburgism”). For instance, her famous “Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy” is unfortunately and erroneously also known as “Leninism or Marxism?” — a title which doesn’t belong to Luxemburg, but a group of anti-Leninist Council Communists. It appeared first in 1935 as “Leninism or Marxism?” printed by the “Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation” based in Glasgow and this name caught on and was gladly used by anti-Bolshevik supporters of Luxemburg.

One more common mistake is measuring Luxemburg’s Marxism against Lenin, who serves as the axis of “correct Marxism” to some:

“It is also important not to read the relationship between Luxemburg and Lenin in light of the political narrative that prevailed in the decades after their death. […] I am also referring to the tendency to read Luxemburg (as well as many other radical figures) in light of Lenin, as if he were the arbiter and measure of Marxist probity (or perfidy). This is understandable given Lenin’s stature in leading the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent global emergence of “Marxist-Leninist” ideology, but it makes little sense for the period in which they lived, since before 1914 Luxemburg was far better known (and more highly regarded) in the international socialist movement than Lenin.” [11]

When it comes to disagreeing with the Bolsheviks, one must certainly speak about Luxemburg’s famous pamphlet, “The Russian Revolution.” Interestingly, much of its readers miss all the parts where the author clarifies the “errors” of the Bolsheviks as largely being the results of the contemporary, difficult conditions and affirms her support for the movement in general. Let us take a few examples:

“Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class — that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.

Doubtless the Bolsheviks would have proceeded in this very way were it not that they suffered under the frightful compulsion of the world war, the German occupation and all the abnormal difficulties connected therewith, things which were inevitably bound to distort any socialist policy, however imbued it might be with the best intentions and the finest principles. […]

The party of Lenin was thus the only one in Russia which grasped the true interest of the revolution in that first period. It was the element that drove the revolution forward, and, thus it was the only party which really carried on a socialist policy. […]

The party of Lenin was the only one which grasped the mandate and duty of a truly revolutionary party and which, by the slogan — “All power in the hands of the proletariat and peasantry” — insured the continued development of the revolution. […]

Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and all the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western Social-Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.”

And so on. The whole pamphlet is filled with the sentiment of solidarity and respect, objectively viewing a struggle for an ideal revolution in less than ideal conditions. As the foremost Luxemburg biographer, J. P. Nettl remarked, it’s vital to consider, that her writing on the Russian revolution is “based, like so much of Rosa Luxemburg’s work, on a form of critical dialogue, in this base with the Bolshevik October Revolution. Those who are made joyful by criticism of the fundamentals of the Bolshevik revolution would do better to turn elsewhere.” [12]

There has also been a great discussion on whether or not Luxemburg revised or somehow walked back on most or all of her criticisms made towards the Bolsheviks. Even Lenin himself remarked, that “she corrected most of these mistakes at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 after she was released.” [13] This claim however, is mostly unfounded. It is true that Luxemburg shifted her positions on some criticisms, like those regarding the Constituent Assembly, but there is nothing indicating that she completely or mostly abandoned her criticisms. Clara Zetkin, at Lenin’s request, wrote an entire book on Rosa Luxemburg’s views on the Russian Revolution, where she challenged the reformist and bourgeois use of her good-faith commentary and dispelled some myths surrounding the pamphlet, using various direct or third-party sources. This is how she concluded the discussion:

“[Luxemburg’s] clear historical understanding and revolutionary spirit would have prevented her from joining the ranks of revolutionary philistines and revolutionary Pharisees — those who pray every day in the name of ‘socialism’: “We thank you God, that we are not like the Bolshevik robbers, murderers and tax collectors; instead by relinquishing the capture of power and socialisation we have kept ourselves worthy and well-suited for the collaboration with Lloyd George and Poincare, with Morgan and Stinnes. “ In this historic moment Rosa Luxemburg would indignantly reject the ‘Marxist’ hawking and spitting “critical distancing from the Bolsheviks” as dissociating oneself from the lone proletarian state which the world revolution has created in its first stormy attempt, in fact, as a desertion from the world proletarian revolutionary camp itself. She would scourge the large number of reformist talks raining down about the Bolshevik attempt at wanting to impose socialism through unsuitable means at an unsuitable time and on an unsuitable object, and that international socialism must stand as the only great hope for the future of the weary and the burdened and should not sully itself through solidarity with this attempt, as being a self-deception and deception of the masses.

As if socialism could ever triumph without revolution and the revolution would be possible without violence and hardship, without commotion and confusion, without long agonising searching, groping and collecting of experience by the proletarian masses and their leaders, as if the revolution were possible as a consistently implemented plan and not as a historical becoming, whose classical social completion does not happen at the outset. Are the workers’ leaders, in tact, so poor in spirit and knowledge that they would fail to indicate to the salvation seeking masses the historical differences between the received and passed down conditions for the proletarian revolution in Russia and in those countries where the soil is already thoroughly prepared for communism by capitalism? That they would fail to demonstrate the significance of this fact for the proletarian struggle for freedom to the millions, who are crying out in these countries for bread and for their children’s right to food and education; those millions who work as human beings but who also want to enjoy the fruits of their labour as human beings? The reformist socialists — whether they brag about their reformism or shamefacedly seek to conceal it — insist on the constraints of the ‘historical situation’; they claim for themselves the right to betray along with the revolutionary struggle the revolutionary aim of the proletariat as well. Yet what is right for the clever reformist socialists is clearly not acceptable to the reckless Bolsheviks. Compelled by the ‘historical situation’ these obdurate outlaws insist on carrying out the revolution in the way ‘it must be carried out.’” [14]

This work stands out as one of the most comprehensive accounts of Rosa Luxemburg and the Russian Revolution. However, there is one shorter, but succinct work from another close comrade of Rosa’s — the Polish communist Adolf Warski. His pamphlet, titled “Rosa Luxemburg’s Position on the Tactical Problems of the Revolution” has not yet appeared in English, but we offer some important extracts, translated from German:

“The blame for the mistakes of the Bolsheviks lies in the first place with the international proletariat and above all the unprecedented persistent perfidy [baseness] of German Social Democracy, a party which in times of peace purported to march at the head of the world proletariat, presumed to lecture the whole world, numbered at least ten million adherents [followers] of both genders and for four years now crucifies, like the venal mercenaries [landsknechte, lansquenets] of the middle ages, socialism at the behest of the ruling class.” (Rosa Luxemburg, in the Spartacus Letters from September 1918, №11.) […]

At the end of November or early December 1918, a German soldier brought me a small note written in Polish by Rosa Luxemburg to Warsaw, in which she wrote to me as an answer to my message roughly the following:

‘When our party (in Poland) is full of enthusiasm for Bolshevism and at the same time (in a secretly printed pamphlet) has come out against both the Bolsheviks’ Brest peace and their agitation with the slogan of ‘national self-determination’ then it is enthusiasm coupled with a critical spirit — what more could we desire! I too shared all your reservations and doubts but on the most important questions have dropped them and in many cases have not gone as far as you. Terrorism certainly indicates weakness but it is aimed at internal enemies who build their hopes on the existence of capitalism outside Russia and receive support and encouragement from there. If a European revolution comes, then the Russian counter-revolutionaries will not only lose their support but — what is more important — their courage too. In other words the Bolshevik terror is, above all, an expression of the weakness of the European proletariat. Indeed the agrarian relationships [in Russia] which have been established are the most dangerous, the sorest point of the Russian revolution. But here too the truth holds good — that even the greatest revolution can only accomplish what development has ripened. This sore point too can only be healed through the European revolution. And this is coming!’ […]

When in December 1918, we moved towards the unification of Polish Social Democracy and the left of the PPS into the Communist Party, we first formulated a programmatic declaration, which we sent to Berlin to Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches for critical examination, neither found fault with a single word of this draft, and this programmatic declaration published in print, which drew directly on the Russian Revolution, was communist, i.e. it was the opposite of constituent assembly, democracy etc. […]

Nevertheless, despite the errors and imperfection of the work [The Russian Revolution], this screed is a revolutionary piece of writing. For Rosa Luxemburg’s critique distinguishes itself from every opportunist critique, in that it never harms the revolutionary cause or the revolutionary party; on the contrary, it only stimulates it — precisely because it is a revolutionary critique. If someone thinks the present pamphlet should’ve been concealed, as it could’ve harmed revolutionary Russia, and that only now was it appropriate for publication, as the Soviet power now allegedly stands strong in the world, they merely prove that they conceive of critique only as opportunistic, revolution- and party-damaging critique; for them, the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg, like the spirit of revolutionary Marxism in general, is a Book of Seven Seals. If a critique harms the revolution or the revolutionary party, well, then it just isn’t a revolutionary critique.” [15]

These extracts, coupled with Zetkin’s work, reveal the actual attitude Luxemburg had towards the Bolsheviks: respect, solidarity, and critical support. Not the kind we see today, where the “critical” part of the critical support is completely illusory and nonexistent, but actual support through genuine, friendly criticism. Therefore, one can confidently claim that Luxemburg was certainly no anti-Leninist, nor did she ever oppose the Russian Revolution.

But does this in itself make her a Leninist? Certainly not. There are still quite a few differences between Luxemburg and Lenin: the National Question, the Agrarian Question, the Organizational Question, etc. The two revolutionaries didn’t see eye-to-eye on these and some other topics even in the very end. They may have been infinitely closer to each other nevertheless, keeping in mind the various flavors of Menshevism and Kautskyism that came out with countless distortions of socialist policy especially during the Russian Revolution, but the divide is still present. Therefore, claiming that Luxemburg was a Leninist or a Bolshevik erases her stark disagreements on different topics, even though she was greatly sympathetic and critically supportive to the former cause.

This finally leads us to the main point of our now-lengthy article: what is “Luxemburgism” and does it even exist?

The So-Called “Luxemburgism”

To understand the historical roots of “Luxemburgism,” we must first ask the following: who conceptualized Rosa Luxemburg’s thought and philosophy into one, whole, unified unit? For there to be an -ism, a more-or-less systematic foundation has to exist. Hence, it was first necessary to compile Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy and works into a totality, and the honour of this task befell to none other than the prominent Hungarian Communist, György Lukács.

In his famous “History And Class Consciousness,” where he devoted a section to “The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg,” Lukács provided a comprehensive summary of this revolutionary and her philosophy. He ended his crowned with the following:

“It is characteristic of the unity of theory and practice in the life work of Rosa Luxemburg that the unity of victory and defeat, individual fate and total process is the main thread running through her theory and her life. As early as her first polemic against Bernstein’s she argued that the necessarily ‘premature’ seizure of power by the proletariat was inevitable. She unmasked the resulting opportunist fear and lack of faith in revolution as “political nonsense which starts from the assumption that society progresses mechanically and which imagines a definite point in time external to and unconnected with the class struggle in which the class struggle will be won”. It is this clear-sighted certitude that guides Rosa Luxemburg in the campaign she waged for the emancipation of the proletariat: its economic and political emancipation from physical bondage under capitalism, and its ideological emancipation from its spiritual bondage under opportunism. As she was the great spiritual leader of the proletariat her chief struggles were fought against the latter enemy — the more dangerous foe as it was harder to defeat. Her death at the hands of her bitterest enemies, Noske and Scheidemann, is, logically, the crowning pinnacle of her thought and life. Theoretically she had predicted the defeat of the January rising years before it took place; tactically she foresaw it at the moment of action. Yet she remained consistently on the side of the masses and shared their fate. That is to say, the unity of theory and practice was preserved in her actions with exactly the same consistency and with exactly the same logic as that which earned her the enmity of her murderers: the opportunists of Social Democracy.” [16]

Lukács argued that Rosa Luxemburg was a consistent revolutionary who dedicated her life to fighting for the proletariat, against the opportunists. Nettl summarized his positions in his biography of Luxemburg:

“Lukács did not deal with Rosa Luxemburg’s work of 1917 as a problem of limited cognition, excusable on account of the particular circumstances, as did Zetkin and Warszawski [Warski]. He treated Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas as a coherent whole with universal application. So for the first time Luxemburgism as a system now made its appearance — though not yet under that name. Lukács’ work conceptualized the official, respectful view of Rosa Luxemburg in this period. He also provided a bridge to the future, when Luxemburgism would be acknowledged as a recognized but fallacious system of ideas, first to be ‘paired’ with other deviations like Trotskyism and then to be almost totally confused with them.” [17]

After Lukács’ efforts to offer Luxemburg’s thought as a complete system, there was a possibility to build an -ism around it. Unfortunately, this process took the form of an iconoclasm against “everything Spartacist.” Thus, “Luxemburgism” was invented to purge Luxemburg and her influence from German Communism and make sure her theoretical works were buried deep under. Being a “Luxemburgist” in the 1920s and 1930s meant opportunism and “right deviationism.” The term has its roots in removing Luxemburg’s thought from the foreground and making sure the “Spartacists” didn’t hold influential positions in the Labor Movement.

At first, before the “Bolshevization” of the KPD was initiated by the Soviet Union, neither the Soviets nor the Germans saw the revolutionary mode of thought so rigidly. To a greater extent, there was a mutual feeling of the vital need to secure the revolution rather than a dispute over which -ism was to dominate. David Fernbach remarks, that:

“Neither Germans nor Russians at this point saw the issue in rigid terms of ‘Bolshevism versus Luxemburgism’. Both Levi and Lenin, and Radek as their intermediary, saw the KPD’s line as the best tactic for the revolutionary forces in Germany.” [18]

J.P Nettl identifies the core of “Luxemburgism” to be spontaneity, unlike other scholars who consider it to be her political economy. Indeed, much of the fight against Luxemburg stemmed from an opposition to her “Accumulation Of Capital.” The main adversary of “Luxemburgism” was Ruth Fischer, an Austrian Communism who later moved to Cuba and got involved in the US intelligence program “the Pond.” Fischer compared Luxemburgism with syphilis [19] and said:

“The German party based its theory and practice in the main on the accumulation theory of Rosa Luxemburg, the source of all errors, of spontaneity theories, of false attitudes with regard to the problem of organization.” [20]

It was Fischer herself, who proposed the need to fight “Luxemburgism” along with other -isms that were apparently deviating from the Party line:

“The KPD delegation endorsed these views although they would have preferred more severe measures against the three. Ruth Fischer urged the need to continue the fight against Brandlerism and Radekism, and to go even further back, to Luxemburgism.” [21]

Clearly, there were some people in the German Communist movement, who favored immediate and effective Bolshevization of the Party and the movement. Ironically for Fischer, who was at the forefront of battling her own concoction (“Luxemburgism,” and some credit her with coining the term altogether), [22] she was invited to Moscow by the Stalin-Zinoviev clique and imprisoned in a hotel for a few months. Thus the German Bolshevist got the taste of the Bolshevik medicine herself, after which she went on a rampage of exposing everyone and everything, including testifying against her own brother and closets affiliates, ending up as an asset of the American intelligence services. Nevertheless, the process of Bolshevisation was very painful in the West and was usually a tool to excerpt pressure and control over the movement:

“In Germany, Bolshevisation was used to divide and rule the movement. The power struggle and economic stabilisation created the perfect environment for the rise of the Left, led by Ruth Fischer and Arkadij Maslow. The Left possessed no theoretical training and were extremely hostile to the old theoretical traditions of the KPD, which they considered “remnants of Social Democracy. “ Bolshevisation was used to defeat the old Spartacists who remained loyal to the theories of Rosa Luxemburg. The Stalinised Comintern pitted the Left and Right against one another and purged the party of all dissent. The party no longer resembled the mass base party that Luxemburg had attempted to build. Luxemburgism was invented as a means of ridding the party of the memory of Rosa Luxemburg. The attacks were partially successful. Luxemburg, the woman and martyr of the Spartakusbund, was rehabilitated. Her theories, however, were not. Crimes and errors were invented in an effort to destroy and possibility of dissent in the various Communist Parties.” [23]

Here, we clearly get a sight of Luxemburgism’s genesis: an artificial invention opposed to Luxemburg and what she stood for, a political tool to wrap a movement around one’s finger and control it by replacing all the dissenting “Luxemburgists” (now synonymous with a saboteur, provocateur, opportunist, etc) with loyal Party cadre. As power struggles intensified in Moscow, this was reflected in the Austro-Polish-German scene too, already in the process of being Bolshevized. There was an urgent need to create a flexible label to apply to those, who durst go against the Party and show any objections:

“In due course Communist theorists constructed for and on behalf of Rosa Luxemburg a system called Luxemburgism — compounded from just those errors on which Social Democracy relied. The person became increasingly separated from the doctrine-rather like the English notion that the Crown can do no wrong. The fiercer the Communist struggle against Luxemburgism, the greater the attachment to the revolutionary personality of Luxemburg, stripped of its errors. As we have seen, this delicate surgery made Rosa Luxemburg unique in Communist history. […]

The later Communist construction of a Luxemburgist system for the sole purpose of demolishing it in public showed that what Rosa Luxemburg imparted to the German Labour movement was sufficiently powerful and pervasive to require systematic demolition. No one else in Germany, not even Kautsky, was elevated to a Communistcreated, proprietary ‘ism’. In Russia only Lenin and Stalin on one side, Trotsky and the Mensheviks on the other, were given such an honour” [24]

Thus the whole process of creating “Luxemburgism” was essentially a strawman-esque in nature: build something “bad” and then destroy it yourself to showcase your revolutionary spirit and dedication to the correct tenets of Marxism. This was especially true in the department of Political Economy, where Luxemburg had indeed made some errors. But they were overblown and specifically highlighted and showcased as the prime example of what a “Luxemburg follower” had to believe in. Naturally, the purge of “Luxemburgism” followed the official establishment of the accumulation theory in the Soviet Union:

“When the Third International established the existence of a ‘general crisis’ of capitalism as its official doctrine in the late 1920s, ‘Luxemburgism’ was created as a new deviation, associated with all sorts of dangerous thoughts. Even the leading economist of the Comintern, Eugen Varga, was repeatedly accused of ‘Luxemburgist’ thinking by his adversaries. In the guise of ‘Luxemburgism’, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic and political thought became completely distorted, and the official reading of her work was dominated by enumerations of her alleged ‘mistakes’.” [25]

Much of what was called “Luxemburgism” was in reality Luxemburg’s critique of Political Economy and her theory of Accumulation, which didn’t go unnoticed: it had dedicated critics both in the ranks of the Communists (most notably Nikolai Bukharin and Henryk Grossman) and the Reformists. But Luxemburg was still an extremely important figure of the Communist movement, so the Third International was extremely careful in erasing her influence and legacy. In the 1920s, she was still featured in some study guides and was perceived as the eagle Lenin had described her by the masses:

“Initially the Comintern treaded carefully in their attacks against Rosa Luxemburg and allowed the brunt of the assaults to come from the KPD leadership. In early 1925 Luxemburg was still valued as a theoretician and even appeared on the ‘syllabus for elementary party courses’ under the section ‘theory of revolution’. In fact, Zinoviev wrote an article in January 1925 regarding the Bolshevisation of the Comintern’s parties and did not even mention Luxemburgism. The only past errors that Zinoviev cited, were in reference to Brandler.” [26]

Thus “Luxemburgism” was still not the “system of errors, a blind alley-from which only a conscious effort of will could lead to Bolshevism” which according to J. P. Nettl it would later become, but a symptom of revolutionary Communism degenerating into opportunism. But as time went by, the Comintern successfully neutralized the “Luxemburgist threat” and effectively purged it from all spheres:

“A division had been set up to create a distinction between Rosa Luxemburg the person — Spartacist martyr and misguided thinker and Luxemburgism — the false ‘system’ which was against ‘Leninism.’ Rosa Luxemburg the martyr was good while her ideas and Luxemburgism were bad. Her alleged crimes, particularly her disagreements with Lenin, were considered “mistakes [which] towards the end of her life [she] began to understand and correct. The official Communist line claimed that if she had lived she would have seen the error of her ways and gone over to the side of the Bolsheviks. Martinov’s articles brilliantly manage to separate the woman from the system. The Comintern found Luxemburg as a symbol difficult to defeat. As a result they paid homage to her contributions while at the same time they emphasised her ‘mistakes.’ […]Rosa Luxemburg was no longer a great enemy of ‘Leninism.’ She was, however, a poor leader because she had not utilised the lessons placed in front of her by Lenin and indeed had the audacity to disagree with him.” [27]

But the distinction of Luxemburg/Luxemburgism didn’t last long, for Stalin subjected this brave revolutionary ten folds better than him to scathing criticism, accusing her of first inventing and then agitating the theory of “Permanent Revolution” (an obvious smear and an ahistorical claim we shall discuss shortly). “Luxemburgism” generally meant “Polish Communism” in the socialist vernacular, but for Stalin, “Luxemburgism” was nothing but a Polish version of Trotskyism:

“This, however, was not the kind of analysis in which Stalin was interested — nor was Zinoviev in the years 1923–24, when, in the name of the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the Polish Communist Party, they declared a holy war on Luxemburgism — that is, on the main ideological tradition of Polish Communism. […] Stalin considered Luxemburgism as the Polish variety of Trotskyism. This provoked the furor theologicus with which the Comintern set out to crush the Luxemburgist heritage.” [28]

He succeeded in purging all the prominent Polish Communists, especially those who still had some respect left for Luxemburg. Rosa Luxemburg was now indistinguishable from Luxemburgism. They were one and the same, a bacillus of syphilis Fischer had once called it. Kaganovich furthered Stalin’s point and destroyed Luxemburg where Stalin had left her untouched. An intense holy war was declared against her and the Comintern made sure to remove her works, influence and name from every sphere of the revolution. This contributed majorly to her becoming a persona non grata and being forgotten until in the latter part of the 20th century, some Marxist scholars rediscovered her as a thinker.

Mary-Alice Waters summarizes Stalin’s criticisms of Luxemburg well:

“How and wherefore, however, did Stalin suddenly busy himself — at such a belated time — with the revision of the old Bolshevik valuation of Rosa Luxemburg? As was the case with all his preceding theoretical abortions so with this latest one, and the most scandalous, the origin lies in thc logic of his struggle agatnst the theory of permanent revolution. In his ‘historical’ article, Stalin once again allots the chief place to this theory. […]

After recapitulating the controversy between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks on the question of the moving forces in the Russian revolution and after masterfully compressing a series of mistakes into a few ones, […] Stalin indites, “What was the attitude of the left German social democrats, Parvus and Rosa Luxemburg, to these controversies? They concocted a utopian and a semi-menshevist schema of the permanent revolution […] Subsequently this semi-menshevist schema was caught up by Trotsky (partly by Martov) and turned into a weapon of struggle against Leninism.” Such is the unexpected history of the origin of the theory of the permanent revolution, in accordance with the latest historical researches of Stalin. But, alas, the investigator forgol to consult his own previous learned works. In 1925 this same Stalin had already expressed himself on this question in his polemic against Radek. Here Is what he wrote then, “It is not true that the theory of the permanent revolution […] was put forward in 1905 by Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky. As a matter of fact this theory was put forward by Parvus and Trotsky.” […]

So, in 1925, Stalin pronounced Rosa Luxemburg not guilty in the commission of such a cardinal sin as participating in the creation of the theory of the permanent revolution. […] In 1931, we are informed by the identical Stalin that it was precisely, “Parvus and Rosa Luxemburg […] who concocted the utopian and semi-menshevist schema of the permanent revolution.” As for Trotsky, he was innocent of creating the theory, it was only “caught up” by him, and at the same time by Martov! […] The Stalinist falsifications are conscious in so far as they are dictated at each given moment by entirely concrete personal interests. At the same time they are semiconscious, insofar as his congenital ignorance places no impediments whatsoever to his theoretical propensities.” [29]

Therefore, Stalin’s criticisms of Luxemburg were not only contradictory, but completely unfounded as well: nowhere had Luxemburg advocated for the theory of Permanent Revolution, nor had she shown her sympathies towards it. Moreover, the only argument for this can be found within Trotsky himself (from My Life, published 1929), but Stalin couldn’t have possibly referred to this, as his initial article predated this erroneous assertion of Trotsky’s by a few years:

“With much later hindsight, Trotsky referred to the affinity of Rosa Luxemburg’s view to his on the question of Permanent Revolution in My Life: “On the question of the so-called Permanent Revolution, Rosa took the same stand as I did.” At the Congress itself he said: ‘I can testify with pleasure that the point of view that Luxemburg developed in the name of the Polish delegation is very close to mine which I have defended and continue to defend. If between us, there is a difference, it’s a difference of shade, and not of political direction. Our thought moves in one and the same materialistic analysis.’

But Luxemburg had not spoken on the question of Permanent Revolution, which was nowhere on the agenda. There is no doubt that, in speaking about the relationship of Marxists to the bourgeois parties, she was developing ideas of the dialectics of revolution and the role of the proletariat as vanguard.” [30]

Hence, we have to conclude that Stalin was simply lying to besmirch Luxemburg’s legacy. When others pointed out this contradiction, he doubled down and rephrased his points, writing:

“There is no contradiction between the article ‘The October Revolution and the Tactics of the Russian Communists’ (1924) and the ‘Letter to the Editorial Board of Proletarskaya Revolutsia’ (1931). These two documents concern different aspects of the question, and this has seemed to you to be a “contradiction.” But there is no “contradiction” here. […] It was not Trotsky but Rosa Luxemburg and Parvus who invented the theory of “permanent” revolution. It was not Rosa Luxemburg but Parvus and Trotsky who in 1905 advanced the theory of ‘permanent’ revolution and actively fought for it against Lenin.” [31]

This poor reasoning didn’t absolve Stalin from lying, and he never justified his stance on why he thought Luxemburg had any involvement either in the creation or advancement of the theory of permanent revolution. But due to the fear of deviating too much from the scope of the article, we shall conclude our section here and repeat and summarize our points in a short manner.

The Conclusion

By probing into the historical record and examining the political struggles of the Labor Movement in the 20th century, it becomes abundantly clear that not only is “Luxemburgism” a false term with no actual meaning or value, but also that it was created and utilized against those, who upheld Luxemburg and her revolutionary thought as genuine and useful. This makes its contemporary usage, especially on the internet, as an -ism encompassing Luxemburg’s philosophy inordinately ironic. This also ignores the fact that many people who do so hold positions completely antithetical to those of Luxemburg, making her appear as a Council Communist, Leninist, Anarchist or any other ideology that the person appropriating her subscribes to. J. P. Nettl fairly noticed:

“Though there are hardly any Luxemburgists, in the way that there were Stalinists and still are Trotskyites, it is almost certainly true that more people at the time found their early way to revolutionary Marxism through Social Reform or Revolution and other writings of Rosa Luxemburg than through any other writer. And justly so. The very notion of Luxemburgism would have been abhorrent to her. What makes her writing so seductive is that the seduction is incidental; she was not writing to convert, but to convince.” [32]

Using the label of “Luxemburgism” neglects its tragic past (and naturally most people who do are completely unaware of this dark side of socialist history) and obscures the matter further, giving the upper hand to those, who truly wish her legacy dead. Rosa Luxemburg was a product of the Second International, just like Lenin, making both of them Orthodox Marxists. However, it’s crucial to remember that both of these revolutionaries broke away from this Orthodoxy and the Second International altogether, which justifies the term “Unorthodox Orthodox Marxist” to describe them as.

The statement that “The murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg is an event of world-historical significance… [partly] because the best people and leaders of the truly proletarian communist international perished tragically.” [33] rings just as true today as it did 100 years ago. Studying Luxemburg, her life and her works is a vital part of being acquainted with the vast and beautiful world of Marxist thought. It is perfectly valid to observe her mistakes and errors, which could stem from personal shortcomings or the historical background, but it is evident, that discarding this monumental figure would devoid Marxism from one of its most creative, talented and dedicated thinkers.

Let’s not disgrace that experience by using harmful and incoherent terminology as “Luxemburgism” and investigate the actual philosophy behind these revolutionaries, who called themselves just “Marxist” and would want us to do so as well.


[1] “This is of course to admit that she was not an orthodox Marxist, so little orthodox indeed that it might be doubted that she was a Marxist at all.” — Hannah Arendt, “Rosa Luxemburg: 1871–1919”

[2] Rosa Luxemburg — The Organizational Questions Of The Russian Social Democracy, Section I

[3] It is true, that initially, Council Communism wasn’t against Vanguardism and simply opposed the Leninist model, which included Democratic Centralism. However, this changed in the 1920s and ever since, Councilists strictly reject a Vanguard-style organization, making it even more illogical to claim Luxemburg as a Council Communist in a modern context.

[4] “Yesterday parliamentary cretinism was a weakness; today it is an ambiguity; tomorrow it will be a betrayal of socialism.” — The National Assembly (November 1918) by Rosa Luxemburg

[5] Uwe Sonnenberg and Jörn Schütrumpf — Rosa Luxemburg in the German Revolution

[6] Ibid

[7] Peter Hudis — The Handbook of Leninist Political Philosophy: Luxemburg and Lenin

[8] Przegląd Socjaldemokratyczny, №6, August 1908; Wybor Pism, Vol. II, pp. 155

[9] Rosa Luxemburg — The National Question, Section I: “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination”

[10] Peter Hudis — The Handbook of Leninist Political Philosophy: Luxemburg and Lenin

[11] Ibid

[12] John Peter Nettl — Rosa Luxemburg

[13] V. I. Lenin — Notes of a Publicist: On Ascending A High Mountain; The Harm Of Despondency; The Utility Of Trade; Attitude Towards The Mensheviks, Etc.

[14] Clara Zetkin — Rosa Luxemburg’s Views On The Russian Revolution

[15] Adolf Warski — Rosa Luxemburgs Stellung zu den taktischen Problemen der Revolution

[16] György Lukács — History and Class Consciousness: The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg

[17] John Peter Nettl — Rosa Luxemburg

[18] David Fernbach — In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi, Introduction

[19] Hermann Weber — Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus: die Stalinisierung der KPD in der Weimarer Republik

[20] Ruth Fischer — Die Internationale, 1925, Vol. VIII, №3

[21] Jane Degras (Ed.) — The Documents Of The Communist International 1919–1943: Volume II (1923–1928)

[22] On the contrary, J. P. Nettl claimed, in his biography of Luxemburg, that “Luxemburgism” was not Fischer’s invention:

“For Ruth Fischer had not invented Luxemburgism, she had only exaggerated it and made it into a political battering-ram with which to pulverize her enemies-a German version of Trotskyism. […] Luxemburgism was now presented as ‘the pre-stage to the recognition of the superior theoretical and tactical basis of Leninism.’”

[23] Lea Haro — The Beginning of the End: The Political Theory of the German Communist Party to the Third Period

[24] John Peter Nettl — Rosa Luxemburg

[25] Judith Dellheim and Frieder Otto Wolf — Rosa Luxemburg: A Permanent Challenge for Political Economy, On the History and the Present of Luxemburg’s ‘Accumulation of Capital’

[26] Lea Haro — Destroying the Threat of Luxemburgism in the SPD and the KPD: Rosa Luxemburg and the Theory of Mass Strike

[27] Lea Haro — The Beginning of the End: The Political Theory of the German Communist Party to the Third Period

[28] Isaac Deutscher — The Tragedy of the Polish Communist Party

[29] Mary-Alice Waters (Ed.) — Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Appendix C

[30] Raya Dunayevskaya — Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution

[31] J. V. Stalin — Reply to Olekhnovich and Aristov

[32] J. P. Nettl — Rosa Luxemburg

[33] Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship Adopted by the First Comintern Congress, 4 March 1919 [Protokoll, I, P. 115]



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The Acheron In Motion is run by a passionate Communist from a post-Soviet state, publishing about revolutionary history and the fundamental theses of Marxism.