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Rosa Luxemburg and the democratic road to socialist revolution 

Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish revolutionary who became a leader of the militant, revolutionary wing of German Social Democracy. She is well known for writing criticisms of Bolshevik organization and policy. John Marot argues that Luxemburg’s ideas developed quickly in light of the German Revolution—and began to converge with Lenin’s views of soviet democracy in the months just before her murder. This essay is written in memory of Loren Goldner.

Introduction: The unknown Rosa Luxemburg

Luxemburg’s Complete Works in English (from Verso Books) will number 17 volumes, each approximately 600 pages. Anglophone socialist militants, young and old, are likely to be familiar with only a few hundred pages constituted by four, landmark essays: Reform or Revolution? (1899), a critique of reformism; Organizational Problems of Russian Social Democracy (1904), a critique of Lenin’s ostensible Blanquism;1 The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions (1906), her masterly study of the universal features of any workers’ revolution, whether in autocracies or republics, using the 1905 Russian Revolution as an illustration; and, finally, in the present volume under consideration (vol. 5), the draft of her well-known, wide-ranging and oft-cited, On the Russian Revolution, written in prison. Luxemburg composed this unfinished, 32-page manuscript in the summer of 1918. It was published posthumously, in 1922.

Whose Luxemburg?

For the past century, many on the Left have taken the Russian Revolution to be Luxemburg’s final and irrevocable verdict: Bolshevism was incompatible with Marx’s dictum that the emancipation of the working class can only be the work of the working class, not that of a “dictatorial” party. By dissolving, in January 1918, the Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of universal, equal, and direct suffrage, Lenin’s partisans “helped create precedents and preconditions for what became known as Stalinism,” as the volume’s editors state—nothing less (xxxviii).

This thumbnail characterization of Bolshevism, and the attendant teleology, is not the exclusive preserve of the Left. Bourgeois liberals, conservatives and reactionaries also subscribe to it. But this approach, where Stalin’s dictatorship appears largely as Lenin’s “dictatorship” multiplied tenfold, so to speak, unwittingly negates, or at the very least obscures, the opposition between the two dictatorships with respect to their objectives: Lenin’s “dictatorship” repressed counter-revolution against the democratic October Revolution—enter the Red Terror. Stalin’s dictatorship mobilized counter-revolution against the October Revolution—through the Five-Year Plans and forced collectivization. Lenin’s majoritarian “terror” sought to preserve the October Revolution; Stalin’s minoritarian terror destroyed it.

Black and white head-and-shoulders portrait of a woman, dressed in a white blouse, in three-quarter profile.
Rosa Luxemburg in 1905. The creator of the image is unknown. Circulated by Verso.

In any event, whatever the critic’s political ideology, many take Luxemburg’s judgment on circumstantial and, therefore, transient aspects of Bolshevik policies of 1918-1919—repression and terror—to characterize “Leninist” politics per se, then and forever. But this approach to Luxemburg muddies the waters because it does not fully engage with the febrile, dynamic, and multi-dimensional character of her thinking.

Upon her liberation on November 7, 1918, Luxemburg wrote a series of articles and essays—around 130 pages—re-evaluating long-held notions concerning the state, democracy, parliament, repression and terror. Most were published in Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the newspaper of the Spartacists2 and, later, official organ of the KPD, founded in late December 1918.

In these newly translated documents, composed in the last 64 days of her life, Luxemburg learned much and understood still more. Though she never read Lenin’s State and Revolution, she staked out positions very close to the Bolshevik chief. Lenin insisted on the democratic advantages of soviet democracy over bourgeois democracy, developing a new theory of state and revolution that incorporated older, social democratic notions of state, democracy and freedom into a superior synthesis.

This excursion into history is politically relevant today. Those on the Left campaigning to “rehabilitate” Kautskyism3 and the democratic parliamentary road to socialism look askance at anything in Luxemburg’s political writings that might imply a defense of Bolshevism, of a democratic, soviet road to socialism.

Through a glass darkly: Luxemburg’s prison writings on the Russian Revolution

While incarcerated Luxemburg could only see the Russian Revolution through a peephole, as it were: scattered press reports published by a violently anti-Bolshevik press, ranging from German Social Democracy on the “Left” to reactionary effluvia on the right. Communications from close comrades supplemented her knowledge. But there can be little doubt that no issues of Pravda or Izvestia regularly landed in her mailbox in the last year of her imprisonment. And so, she could not follow, day by day, what the Bolsheviks were saying and doing between the February and October Revolutions of 1917, or beyond. This created immense difficulties for Luxemburg to understand precisely what was going on, to get the Big Picture from the Bolshevik perspective.

Structure and conjuncture: The peasant question

Luxemburg’s understanding of agrarian relations in late imperial Russia was faulty, and this mistaken view was part of what underlay her critique of the Bolsheviks in On the Russian Revolution. It was the structural dimension of the Russian Revolution that commanded Luxemburg’s attention, relating specific Bolshevik policies to that dimension. Unfortunately, students rarely study questions of political economy in relation to Luxemburg’s historically concrete criticism of Bolshevik policies.

Thus, Luxemburg assailed the Bolshevik policy of land to the peasant, decreed by Soviet power in October 1917, for reversing the ostensibly pro-capitalist reforms in agriculture undertaken in late Imperial Russia, known as the Stolypin reforms. In her view, these reforms had led to a large-scale proletarianization of the peasantry. But Bolshevik policy, she averred, had dismantled these reforms, reversing the trend toward proletarianization and leading instead to “the fragmentation of the relatively advanced large-scale agricultural enterprise into the primitive, small-scale holding, the latter operating with technical means from the time of the pharaohs.” This not only failed to constitute a “socialist measure,” she thought, it also blocked the “route to any such measure” by piling up “insurmountable difficulties in the path of the reconfiguration of agrarian relations along socialist lines.” Indeed, “social and economic inequality within the peasantry had increased,” and “class antagonisms” had “intensified” (226).

Contrary to Luxemburg’s view, there never was any significant large-scale agriculture in late imperial Russia worked by largely landless peasants using novel methods unknown to the pharaohs. Agriculture remained what it always was. Peasants sought to hold on to their small plots of land, the basis of their existence, by any means necessary. In tsarist times, they rented additional lands from the gentry at exorbitant rates or took out loans at equally exorbitant interest rates to purchase land. In the revolution, however, the peasants took matters into their own hands. In the summer of 1917, and using the age-old institution of peasant self-rule, the commune or mir, they began a, by and large, orderly (not “chaotic,” as Luxemburg thought) expropriation of gentry land, stopped paying rent, and canceled loans.

In sweeping away the landed aristocracy, the Russian Revolution did not significantly alter the peasant’s relationship to other peasants or to the land. The number of peasant households with land rose from 18 to 25 million. They had tilled their bantam household plots before, under the tsars, and continued to do so under Soviet power. In the long run, this peasantry proved to be a truly insurmountable obstacle to building socialism democratically until Stalin’s policies of forced collectivization annihilated the peasant way of life, marking the end of any kind of socialism.

When Luxemburg wrote On the Russian Revolution in the summer of 1918, the great share-out of land at the expense of the landed aristocracy was in full swing. As noted, the first decrees of Soviet power called, among other things, for land to the peasant, recognizing de jure what the peasants were doing de facto, and forcing the Bolsheviks to renounce their original program of land nationalization, designed to foster the development of “capitalism” in agriculture in favor of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR) program of land to the peasant.

Luxemburg thinking Bolshevik policy had radically reconfigured agrarian relations—when it had not—nevertheless contained a profound truth about the Russian Revolution that most Marxists ignore at their peril: A landholding peasantry was indubitably detrimental to “proletarian and socialist interests.” Any “attempted socialist reform of agriculture,” she wrote, “will be confronted by an adversary consisting of an enormously expanded and powerful mass of property-owning peasantry, which will fight tooth and nail to defend its newly acquired property from any socialist attacks” (227).

This understanding of the peasantry was an ideological stock-in-trade of Second International “stageist” Marxism, indeed, the ABCs of Marxism. Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Lenin were simply repeating Kautsky on this question, and Kautsky was simply repeating Marx’s dictum that historically definite material premises of socialism—identified with the proletariat and the capitalist mode of production—formed a necessary, preparatory, pre-socialist “stage” in socio-economic development, one, moreover, that could not be circumvented by “leaping” over it, as in “voluntarist” versions of Marxism, notably Maoism and Guevarism.

That stage may have been reached on a world scale by the early twentieth century but no social democrat thought tsarist Russia alone, with its 100 million peasants, had reached it. If workers were to seize power there, they would also have to seize it elsewhere, in the capitalist world proper. If they didn’t, building “socialism in one country”—in Russia—became a dystopian project. And that is what it turned out to be historically, after the hope of revolution in Western Europe subsided in the 1920s. Luxemburg understood this danger; so did Lenin, Trotsky, and anyone else with a minimal understanding of the world.

Soviet Power dissolves the Constituent Assembly: The historical background

In the Russian Revolution, the peasantry destroyed all local organs of the tsarist administration, the zemstvos, through which the ruling class, the landed aristocracy, had extorted its share of peasant surpluses. Originally, the zemstvos had been established in the wake of the abolition of serfdom in 1861 to nominally take over from this gentry the conduct of local affairs. The peasants paid increasingly onerous taxes to support zemstvo functionaries—statisticians, teachers, agronomists, surveyors, doctors, secretaries, clerks. Critically, these functionaries also formed the core of SR activists, organizers, and cadres. This party obtained a plurality of votes in elections to the Constituent Assembly.

In democratic elections to the Constituent Assembly, held before the Soviet seizure of power in October 1917, the peasantry overwhelmingly voted for the Socialist Revolutionaries, a party that had long advocated land to the peasant in their program. Collecting 40 percent of the popular vote, the SRs represented the largest party in the assembly. The Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries were in the minority, with 25 percent of the popular vote. Overtly non-socialist parties, notably the counter-revolutionary Kadet party, made up the right. With five percent of the vote, the imperialist-minded liberals of the Kadet party had managed to outpoll the Mensheviks’ paltry three percent, sealing the latter’s final political bankruptcy in the eyes of the working class—while simultaneously endorsing the living alternative to a bourgeois republic, Soviet Power.

But the SRs together with the Menshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party had proved to be neither socialist nor revolutionary nor democratic in practice in the eight-month period of “dual power,” misleading all those who thought they were—mostly peasants in the countryside where Bolsheviks were not present in sufficient numbers to counter SR ideological influence over them. So, this class unknowingly voted against its interests—a phenomenon socialists are familiar with.

Thus, between February and October 1917, Mensheviks and SRs opposed land distribution without compensation, favored continuing the imperialist war until an imperialist peace could be concluded, and insisted on maintaining managerial authority on the factory floor at the expense of factory committees organized and led by workers—all in the name of “revolutionary democracy.” After the October Revolution, and upon the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, the SR majority, supported by the Mensheviks, understandably refused to ratify Soviet decrees on land, workers’ control, and peace. At stake: Who was in charge—Soviet Power or the Constituent Assembly? Which authority would enforce freedom of speech, assembly, and press in public accommodations, on college campuses, in the streets, and on the shop floor?

In the proletariat, Lenin’s partisans commanded an overwhelming majority of the votes, over 60 percent. However, in the population at large, among the “citizenry,” they were clearly in the minority. So here is the paradox: The Russian Revolution, universally regarded by honest people as a movement of the overwhelming majority in the interests of the majority, nevertheless democratically elects an assembly that, if allowed to perform its role in establishing a bourgeois democratic state, would have compelled the Bolsheviks to abdicate leadership of the revolution in favor of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their ally, the Mensheviks, who had also decried the Soviet seizure of power as an anti-popular, anti-democratic coup, an old charge repeated today under a new name—“Leninist insurrectionism.”

To prevent the destruction of the new-born soviet state under the banner of “democracy,” the Bolsheviks (and their temporary allies, the Left SRs), thought best to displace the Constituent Assembly in favor of “All Power to the Soviets,” the slogan the Bolsheviks had adopted in late April 1917, following their acceptance of Lenin’s supposedly famous April Theses. The theses, however, were not famous to Luxemburg and many others when they first came out. She never wrote explicitly about them. She may have heard of them but there is no evidence that she understood their world-historic significance then, as we do now—some present-day outliers excepted. Readers are urged to unfailingly keep track of what Luxemburg knew, and when she knew it, to understand the dynamic of Luxemburg’s thought. Concrete historical analysis and clear chronology are indispensable.

Luxemburg’s argument

Soviet Power dissolved the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. This act was central to Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as falling afoul of the most basic principles of democracy, a critique repeated time and again today. But Luxemburg’s critique lacked the necessary specificity, born from real knowledge of the historically concrete circumstances of, and reasons for, the dissolution of an assembly elected based on universal, equal, and direct suffrage. She often fell back to rhetorically reiterating the First Principles of Democracy to make up for unavoidable gaps in her knowledge, a reflex some commentators today also exhibit but with considerably less justification since they are not locked up and can go check the historical record.

While in prison, Luxemburg read and attacked Trotsky’s reasoning defending the Bolshevik action. In From October to Brest Litovsk, Trotsky had argued that since the Constituent Assembly had been elected long before the October Revolution, its composition when it met ten weeks after the overthrow of the Provisional Government no longer registered the new balance of class forces created by the soviet seizure of power. Luxemburg agreed that the assembly was “an image of a past that had been superseded”—just as “Herschel’s night sky never shows us celestial bodies as they are, but rather as they were at the precise moment at which … they dispatched their emissaries of light toward Earth.” Luxemburg capped her starry analogy with a triumphant flourish:

… [I]t necessarily followed that the course of action to be taken was to dissolve the obsolete—and thus stillborn—assembly and to call fresh elections for a new Constituent Assembly without delay! 235

But the “clever” Trotsky and Lenin did not follow this logical course, eliminating “democracy as such” (237, emphasis added). There are many facets to Luxemburg’s analysis that require individualized study. I deal only with the ones immediately and directly relevant to the matter at hand.


Luxemburg’s starry reasoning begged the fundamental, earthly political question: Who would decide whether the Constituent Assembly was stillborn or not? The Constituent Assembly? Soviet Power? How could this be decided democratically? If it were left to the Assembly, it meant acknowledging it—and not the Soviet—as the supreme power. As the supreme power, it could not have been in the interests of the majority there, the SRs above all, to permit new elections to reflect the “current state of affairs” in the countryside—peasant annihilation of the zemstvos.

The new assembly elections that Luxemburg favored, which would reflect the peasantry’s scorched-earth policy toward the zemstvos, would have meant the SRs undermining the very basis of their social existence. After all, the peasants were paying the salaries of this social stratum. Hence this party’s material interest in invoking formal democracy—the electoral configuration of the Constituent Assembly—at the expense of substantive democracy. As Lenin pointed out, substantive democracy involved peasants who had already “voted with their feet” to desert the army and join their classmates in the countryside to divide the land—and do without the hardships of materially supporting an SR-influenced bureaucracy to run the now-defunct zemstvos.

When the Soviet Power issued its ultimatum to the Constituent Assembly regarding the land—acknowledge and respect the peasantry’s democratic choice—Mensheviks and SRs refused. Had the Bolsheviks deferred to it, they would have discredited themselves in the eyes of the majority in society at large, workers and peasants. Lenin’s partisans did not want to commit political suicide by recognizing formal democracy at the expense of substantive democracy.

The question of suffrage: A counterfactual

Luxemburg’s democratic criticism would have carried greater credibility had the peasantry become proletarianized, if the material basis for socialism had actually existed not just in the cities but in the countryside. In that case, elections would have reflected a state of affairs where the urban and rural proletariat would have constituted a majority of the entire population, as in the West. As such, however, the working-class majority would have voted for the Bolsheviks not only in the cities of Russia, as it did historically, but in the countryside as well. On the assumption that there would have been little compartmentalization between the two electoral processes—the left, “soviet” hand of the proletariat fully aware of what its right, “constitutional” hand was doing—the Bolsheviks would have been running the Constituent Assembly and the Soviet, commanding a majority in each, according to the logic of Luxemburg’s reasoning.

After her liberation, however, Luxemburg explicitly dropped the notion she had held in prison, that general democratic forms could meaningfully coexist with class-specific forms of democracy, parliaments with workers’ councils, bourgeois democracy with soviet democracy, whether in “backward” or “advanced” societies. In this new conception, socialist democracy cannot coexist with bourgeois democracy—an institutional form now historically outdated yet still constituting an undemocratic barrier to socialist transition, mandating its destruction.

Sixty-four days of freedom: Luxemburg’s implicit reevaluation of the Russian Revolution in light of the German Revolution

Revolution in Germany—whose outbreak led to her release from prison—convinced Luxemburg that bourgeois democratic political forms, no matter where they might exist, were not only incompatible with proletarian democratic forms but, in times of revolution, a mortal danger to them. For it is in the name of these universal forms—rule of the majority or democracy per se—that counter-revolution in Germany justified suppressing the revolutionary minority.

Luxemburg’s heinous murder—a crime against humanity—prevented her from explicitly revising her initial evaluation of the Russian Revolution in the light of extraordinary developments in the German workers’ movement that concentrated her mind in the last two months of her life, while on the run from the police from November 9, 1918, to January 15, 1919. But logical inferences, applicable to Russia, can be drawn from her analysis of events in Germany.

Against putschism

Luxemburg always insisted that (initially minoritarian) revolutionary tactics had to be used to rally the otherwise non-revolutionary majority to revolution as a prerequisite to overthrowing the bourgeois state and seizing power, banning any Blanquist or quasi-Blanquist notions of minoritarian revolutionary seizures of power. Luxemburg’s memorable dictum was: “not through a majority to revolutionary tactics, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority—that is the way the road runs” (223). And that is how the road ran in the October Revolution, considered as a workers’ revolution only. Only after the Bolsheviks had won majorities in virtually all the workers’ institutions, the factory committees and soviets, could they actually overthrow the Provisional Government. Only after the Bolsheviks had secured majority support of the working class could they actually found a soviet state.

Some socialists today draw the lesson from Luxemburg’s dictum that it was possible for an elected minority to seize power without majority support and then rally the majority to support this fait accompli, temporarily establishing a “lack of correspondence between an oppositional revolutionary movement that has not yet obtained a majority and a consolidated post-revolutionary democratic society” as in Russia (Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy, 39.) This not only misconstrues Luxemburg and misrepresents the October Revolution; it also inadvertently makes room for putschist notions.

Blurry black-and-white group photo of sailors from the early twentieth century.
The German Revolution was precipitated by mutinies in Germany’s North Sea ports. Here, sailors in the port of Kiel hold a sign that reads, in part, “Long live the socialist republic. Image by Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst.

Only in Russia was it possible, though not inevitable, for majority representation of workers in the Soviet to go hand-in-hand with minority representation in the Constituent Assembly because the peasantry, not the working class, elected a counterrevolutionary majority hostile to workers’ interests and, indeed, to the peasants’ own interests, as was historically the case with the SRs and the Mensheviks. Only in Russia was it possible, though not inevitable, for a non-consensual resolution to this conflict. Matters were different in Germany.

In Germany, an opposition between workers’ councils and National Assembly roughly analogous to that between Soviet Power and Constituent Assembly in Russia also arose. But (attempted) dual power operated in Germany in the presence of the capitalist state, whereas dual power in Russia operated in the presence of Soviet Power—a decisive difference.

Sounding the alarm

Within days of her prison release Luxemburg sounded the alarm. She drew up a lengthy bill of indictment against her erstwhile comrades of Social Democracy for creating the National Assembly, elected by universal suffrage, as it was meant to act as

… a bourgeois counterweight to the workers’ and soldiers’ representatives, diverting the revolution onto the tracks of bourgeois revolution, and spinning the socialist goals of the revolution into oblivion.

The assembly was doing “nothing to destroy the continued power of capitalist class rule” and everything “to placate the bourgeoisie, to proclaim the sacrosanctity of property, to safeguard the inviolability of capital relations.” It allowed “the counterrevolution to continue at every turn, without appealing to the masses, without loudly warning the people” (258).

The struggle for the National Assembly is fought under the battle cry of “democracy or dictatorship.” Even socialist leaders obediently adopt these slogans of counterrevolutionary demagogues without noticing that this alternative is a demagogic falsification. Today it is not a question of democracy or dictatorship. The question that history has put on the agenda is: Bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy? (267)

While the majority of the Russian proletariat voted for Bolshevik delegates to the Constituent Assembly, the German proletariat returned a counter-revolutionary, Social Democratic majority to the National Assembly. When this assembly ordered the dissolution of the workers’ councils, the latter had little choice: submit or be repressed. Though Luxemburg and her small band of followers resisted as best they could savage militarized police operations launched against them by Freikorps death squads, they were not really in a position to do so successfully because they lacked majority working class support for socialist revolution and Soviet Power. Had Luxemburg’s partisans disregarded that majority notwithstanding, that majority would have interpreted their actions as an attempted putsch, destined to fail, not a self-conscious act of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority, which would have opened the road to victory.

Black-and-white photo of a large crowd packing a city square in the early twentieth century.
Revolutionary demonstration on December 29, 1918, at Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz. Image by Imperial War Museums UK.

Correlatively, where the working class majority backs a soviet seizure of power in the course of its self-movement, and there contingently arises in the post-seizure-of-state-power period a conflict between bourgeois and socialist democracy (i.e, between institutions elected on the basis of universal suffrage and those elected on a class basis), that conflict will, in all probability, be resolved peacefully because workers will, in all probability, have elected majorities to both institutions. In this hypothetical case, party-political representatives of the working-class majority in a Constituent Assembly, elected to found a bourgeois-democratic state suited to the capitalist mode of production, vote for its self-dissolution, voluntarily giving way to their counterparts in the Soviet, the superior, proletarian-socialist state form corresponding to the developing proletarian-socialist relations of property—based on workers’ control of production—that can put an end to class society.


From the experience of the German Revolution, unfolding before her very eyes, Luxemburg explicitly repudiated her earlier view, in On the Russian Revolution, that general democratic forms could exist side-by-side with class-specific forms of democracy. It was no longer a matter of “preferring” (237) one electoral system over another, as Luxemburg had originally thought. In her new view, the National Assembly in Germany, democratically elected by all citizens in January 1919, in the wake of the Kaiser’s overthrow, was incompatible with class-based soviets, with workers’ councils or Arbeiterrate—to use the expression familiar to her and to Second International Marxists–the word “soviet” not acquiring rights of citizenship in German Marxism and elsewhere until after her death.

Only a movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority can overthrow capitalism. When the material basis for proletarian revolution and socialism is present, a theory of politics of the post-revolutionary transition to socialism in advanced capitalist societies that takes the post-October 1917 domestic Soviet experience, in part or in whole, as meaningfully relevant to this theory can only go astray, offering illusory solutions to imaginary problems since that experience is inapplicable because it is irrelevant.

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John Marot View All

John Marot is the author of The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect: Interventions in Russian and Soviet History. His articles have appeared in specialist journals and in socialist publications, Jacobin, New Politics, Against the Current, Historical Materialism and others.