Loren: My name is Loren and what we’re going to deal with today is Lenin and Luxemburg. This is a huge topic. Both of these people are great revolutionaries and there are libraries of books written about them. So in two hours, I’m going to try to sort of summarize what I think is really important about them. First of all, how many people had a chance to read Rosa Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike? I’m sure on a first read a lot of it struck you as kind of strange or unfamiliar. But I think the more you get into it you’ll understand what a radical text it is. I re-read it last night for the first time in many years, and it just hit me between the eyes like the first time or second times I read it. I’m sure there are a lot of references in it that wouldn’t be terribly familiar. I’m going to start with Luxemburg. It’s kind of arbitrary but here we go. I think towards the end you’ll see how it all fits together.
Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1870. She was Jewish, born in a Polish-speaking area. The first thing we’ve got to realize is that at this time , Poland did not exist on the map. Poland was wiped off the map in the late 18th century. It only became a country again after World War 1. Polish nationalism was a tremendously powerful force that Rosa Luxemburg had to deal with and she was very critical or hostile to it. So by the time the Socialist movement in Poland became a mass movement, there were two major wings. One was Polish nationalist, almost proto-fascist ,and the other one was Internationalist Marxist, and Rosa Luxemburg was a major figure in the latter. Poland, even though it didn’t formally exist, always played an important role in the European revolutionary movement. Much of what I’m going talk about today will strike you as ancient history, and what they call “Eurocentric” today. I think it’s really important, as I hope you’ll see in the course of our discussion, and I do want it to be a discussion. So please feel free to interrupt, and ask questions if I make references that aren’t clear. All of these questions are totally alive today, such as the question of nationalism, in a different form but still completely contemporary. So the Polish question was a very important question in the revolutionary movement in Europe. The Poles were famous for failed uprisings. Poland was divided between Russia, Austria and Germany; each had a share of it. In 1846 and in 1863 there were these massive insurrections which were mainly crushed by the Russian Czar’s Army. But there were also rallies of support all over Europe; Marx was involved. There were demonstrations for Polish independence, Polish liberation and so on. So the Polish question was just all over the place. One of the interesting things about Rosa Luxemburg is that she broke with the tradition of support for Polish nationalism. Why did she do that? She was smuggled out of Poland in a pile of hay, on a farmer’s cart, in about 1890, to get to Germany where she could participate in a more open Socialist movement. A few years after that she went to graduate school in Switzerland.
Switzerland, as some of you probably have known, was a major magnet for revolutionaries at this time. And particularly Russian revolutionaries and from those other repressed nationalities in those different empires. So the graduate schools in the big cities of Switzerland were basically seminars of revolutionaries, arguing about all these questions of the revolutionary movement. Rosa wrote her doctoral dissertation on the topic ‘The Industrial Development of Poland’. This may sound like a dry topic but her purpose in writing it was to demonstrate that the project of an independent Poland was a utopia, because; the Polish economy was so integrated into the Russian economy that there had to be a revolution in both places. So, she said, ‘’Polish independence is utopian within capitalism and it is reactionary within socialism’’. This became a very controversial thing. She was really disliked, and hence much later, in the Polish Solidarnosc movement in 1980 and 1981, Rosa Luxemburg was never mentioned because she was known for her anti-nationalist views. That’s a whole other story, but she became a militant, an agitator, a journalist, and a revolutionary in the German socialist movement. She was really tri-national. She became fluent in German; she was active in the German, Polish and Russian movements, and she spoke all these languages and probably a couple of others.
She was such a great speaker that she was greatly in demand on the circuit of conferences, meetings and things like that. There is a pretty interesting movie about her you might want to see. It’s just called “Rosa Luxemburg”; it was made in 1980s by a German woman named Margarethe von Trotta. It’s well worth seeing. It’s a full length feature film and it’s just very curiously makes absolutely no mention of Lenin or of Rosa Luxemburg’s relationship to Lenin because the film had to be approved by the highest levels of the (then) East German authorities. East Germany of course still existed at that time. But aside from that, it’s really worth seeing. Now, why did Rosa Luxemburg go to Germany and get involved in the SPD? The SPD was and is a Social Democratic Party in Germany. At that time, the German Socialist party was the “queen” of all socialist parties in the world. It was, then, what Russia became after 1917; everybody went to Germany to find out about it. The works of its main theoreticians were translated into all kinds of languages. It was kind of the orthodoxy in the international movement. I am going to skip over a lot of details, so anytime you want to ask this or that please feel free.
Speaker 2: Wasn’t she very high up in the Polish socialist party?
Loren: Oh yeah! She was in the central group. It was called the…, it had this very long name. It was called the “Socialist Party of Poland and the Kingdom of Lithuania”, another country that was completely submerged by the Russian empire. Luxemburg’s party was known for being very orthodox Marxist and very anti-nationalist. So they were always fighting with the pro- nationalist, you might say, a proto-fascist Polish Socialist Party, led by a man named Pilsudski,who after World War I became the strong man, not to say dictator, of newly independent Poland.
I want to get back to the SPD. By the time Luxemburg got to Germany it was a mass party with hundreds of thousand of members, thirty newspapers, journals, a whole network that it’s almost impossible to imagine today in a capitalist country. It had gone through this long history; it had been repressed from 1878 to 1890, for twelve years, under Bismarck. It was just more or less completely underground, but allowed to participate in elections. So in the course of the twelve years it was repressed, it grew stronger and stronger; finally it was so strong they had to legalize it. So, it was legalized in 1890. Luxemburg got there shortly after that. If I go off into what the SPD was, we will be here until 10 PM. I just want to say a few things about it. Even though it was known as the party of orthodox Marxism, Marx and Engels privately thought it was very highly problematic. In their own private correspondence they referred to it as these idiot social democrats. Engels attacked the very idea of Social Democracy as having nothing to do with communism and their projects because… Engels was ambiguous about the nature of bourgeois democracy, they were not —
Speaker 3: So why were they against [inaudible] democracy?
Loren: Well! Because they were communists and they realized that the party couldn’t call itself
Communist. The liberal forces at that time was still battling with all these monarchies, at that time most of Europe was under one kind of monarchy or another. So when the revolutions of 1848 failed, Marx and Engels had to flee to England. This was before Switzerland became this big centre; at that time, London was kind of the place revolutionaries could go and be tolerated. Volume 2 of Marx’s Complete Works is a 400 page polemic called The Great Men of Exile, which is a portrait of the exile scene in London, denouncing them all as worthless sectarians that…, kind of imagine fifteen different groups like the today’s Spartacist League all in this very intense exile scene and that gives you a certain idea. After the revolution died away, Marx went off to the British museum to write Capital. He wasn’t turning his back on activity at all; he was just waiting for the next wave. Which he for a long time was expecting the day after tomorrow, but that’s another story. In 1857, he wrote to Engels that he expected revolution imminently and regretted that no one would read his book.
So, meanwhile, while he was in exile; these different forces in Germany started to organize. There was this guy name Ferdinand Lassalle who was the most important of them. Ferdinand Lassalle was not a Marxist and not even a materialist. He was very intelligent, a great speaker, charismatic, and kind of a natural leader. His idea of socialism was essentially having a bunch of cooperatives in which the market would not be abolished, and also relying on the state. Later he got into a secret relationship with Bismarck, who was a key unifier of Germany about ten years later. Lassalle and his group were socialist; they hated the liberals, Bismarck hated the liberals, so they had these negotiations about sticking it to the liberals together, which ultimately didn’t come to anything. These negotiations remained secret for forty years until after the Russian Revolution. So Lassalle was always this great hero of the revolutionary movement until these documents were found that showed he had these secret meetings with Bismarck. Meanwhile this other faction of pro- Marx people also developed in Germany and they finally fused in 1875 to form the SPD. Then they were banned three years later and re-emerged in 1890, becoming this mass party. But this Lassallean influence always remained strong; for example, after the Russian Revolution, at one of the first congresses of the Communist (Third) International, there were three massive photographs behind the speakers’ podium: Marx, Engels and Lassalle.
And once it was discovered that Lassalle was secretly involved with Bismarck, that all came to an end, but that just shows how powerful his influence was.
So Rosa Luxemburg stepped into this situation and what emerged were basically three factions in the SPD. There was the left wing, of which she was the most important spokesperson; then there was the center, around a guy named Karl Kautsky. At that time Karl Kautsky was known throughout the world the way Lenin was known after the Russian Revolution. He was considered THE heir of Marx. But in fact he had all kinds of problems and he was no way near Marx’s level. But he was in those years the guy who would decide on questions of orthodoxy. So he headed the centre, though it wasn’t really called the centre at that time, I’ll get to that in a minute. Then there was the right wing , which was based on the trade unions. Now, in The Mass Strike, Rosa Luxemburg is mainly denouncing that right wing and the trade union leaders and the people in the party who were oriented to them. Just like trade unions today, (though at that time they were bigger and more powerful), they became conservative forces. They became more and more interested in preserving themselves as trade unions and less and less interested in revolution, but they hid behind the orthodoxy of the party. Luxemburg talks about this dual relationship between the party and its ideas, then about the trade unions and their ideas. She was constantly getting into trouble; she would go to some city and make some radical speech, and would offend the centre and the right bureaucrats of that city, and there would be turmoil in the party etc.
Things really came to a head in 1898 when a guy named Bernstein published a book in which he basically said…, I think it’s called Evolutionary Socialism. Bernstein said in effect that Karl Marx was a great thinker, but let’s face it, his ideas are completely out of date. Marx was imagining a collapse of the capitalist system, he was imagining the that workers were getting poorer as time went on, when in fact we’re seeing the workers are getting better and better off. There was some amount of temporary truth to that, but Bernstein was just basically throwing Marx out the window. This led to this huge battle that was known as the Revisionist Debate. That’s when the term “revisionism” first came into the Marxist lexicon. On paper, the left won the debate, and Kautsky sided with Luxemburg…
Speaker 3: Bernstein was arguing that there would be like a gradual evolution.
Loren: Right! His slogan was “the goal is nothing, the movement is everything” and therefore all we have to do is just keep fighting for better conditions and one day we’ll have socialism. We don’t have to worry about the revolution. Every aspect of Marx just went out the window except the trade unions struggle.( Anybody want to ask a question at this point?)
So, nominally the left won that debate but in reality and practice the right just kept on doing what it was doing and got stronger and stronger. That’s where 1905 came in and Luxemburg’s pamphlet is about the 1905 revolution. The 1905 revolution is what brings Lenin and Luxemburg together to some extent.
As I was saying earlier, Poland, Russia and Germany were all involved in this area where the revolution took place. If you read The Mass Strike, you’ll remember these incredible passages about thirty different cities all going out on strike at once. It’s just suddenly something happens and it electrifies everybody and in no time hundreds of other cities are doing the same thing. I’d say the key thing, we’ll go over the text more carefully in a bit, is that Luxemburg is distinguishing here between what Marx in different writings called the ‘class in itself’ which is the class when it’s like sort of typical trade union struggle. One industry, one factory, one town, as opposed to the “class for itself” when it emerges as a force in the whole country actually fighting the state! The 1905 revolution was as important, maybe in some ways as important as a social movement as the 1917 revolution itself. Because it’s the first time that these institutions called ‘’soviets’’ appeared’. (“Soviet” in Russian just means ‘’council’’.)
Speaker 3: What does a council mean in English?
Loren: Okay! Let me just back up for a second. Up until that time most people, even radical people (I’m not sure about Luxemburg), but most people imagined that socialism, whether gaining power by election or revolution, that a socialist party would capture the state and do all kinds of good things. There was very little thought about what a socialist society would really look like. Suddenly in 1905 came along and these soviets appeared all over Russia and Russian Poland. Soviets are councils but they’re like regional councils. They’re not just based on the workplace, they’re based on class so all kinds of proletarian people, such as the unemployed and the retired, could participate in them. And for brief periods they had actual power in these different cities. They were so unique, so novel that Lenin, who was off in Switzerland in exile, was very suspicious of them for weeks until he began to realize this is the way in which working class power expresses itself. Along with the soviets came workers’ councils, which were councils that took over specific workplaces and ran them under workers’ control. And of course they are related to each other. Workers’ councils elected delegates for the soviets and it kind of , for a very short period, solved the question of what a real society run by ordinary working people would look like. So it was just an incredible breakthrough and it was not something out of any book. No one before 1905 had talked about these institutions. It was a classic example of the discovery by a movement in motion.
It was truly a working class creation. People like CLR James for example, had the idea that the role of revolutionaries is to “recognize and record”. Well, this is the classic example of where that approach is right in the mark. It is recognizing the importance of something that the class itself developed while it was in motion and seeing that as a theoretical breakthrough. The theoreticians come along and say “well this is very important, this is the class for itself.” I don’t totally agree with James overall but if you ever want to have a situation that confirms his way of looking at things, this is it.
Speaker 3: How did the revolution in 1905 begin?
Loren: The way it began was Russia and Japan got into a war in 1904. This war itself was incredibly significant on the world scale because; it was the first time that a non-European country, using modern weapons and modern strategy and a modern army, defeated a European country. It was celebrated all over the world, all over the colonial world because most of what we call the Third World, the developing world today, at that time was under different colonial empires. It actually helped to inspire the founding of the NAACP in the United States, which was founded in the same year. It was something way beyond just a Japanese victory. The Japanese victory itself was very important in terms of the emergence of real capitalism in East Asia because; up until that time…
Speaker 3: I know that the Japanese won in the war; Japan became like a big political center for East Asian revolutionaries and nationalists. So could it be argued that while this was happening in like Germany it was happening also in Japan? Like with this epicenter like propagation of revolutionaries and nationalists?
Loren: Sure! Tokyo became around that time was for East Asian revolutionaries what London was for revolutionaries in Western Europe. It’s where you went to really immerse yourself in politics, Marxism etc. The Japanese translated Marx probably before many western countries translated Marx. Korea at that time was a Japanese colony, and China was very weak and was divided up among different western powers. Revolutionaries just flocked to Tokyo, so it created this real international scene. It was of tremendous importance. The other thing that was remarkable in that 1904-05 war is that the Russians actually sent a fleet all the way around Africa and the Indian Ocean to take care of this new country and the Japanese just sank virtually every ship in the fleet. There were a couple of very famous naval battles and then there were battles on land as well. The world was absolutely stunned because no one expected Japan to win the war or even do well in the war. So, the shock of the defeat, the Russian loss set off…, Russia was a tinder box, I’ll get to that more when I talk about Lenin. But that’s what started the revolution; just a bunch of protests against the war which escalated into these s soviets and workers’ councils.
Let me now shift over to Lenin. During World War 1 and after World War 1, Lenin and Luxemburg were in closer touch. Luxemburg was quite aware of Lenin. Probably one of the most important points I want to emphasize is at that time Russia appeared to the rest of the revolutionary movement like some backwater that nobody else knew much about, nobody cared much about. The Russian revolutionaries were mainly in exile in Western Europe.
They would hold these congresses of a few hundred people that would last for six weeks with people getting into fist fights, shouting at each other in a language that few outsiders understood. They were just considered very weird. No one ever imagined that Russia would become the centre of a revolutionary breakthrough. In a certain sense I would say it was kind of an accident that it did. Somebody once described it as if a platoon on the western front during World War I that accidentally captured a huge division of German troops. That was certainly how it struck people at the time. Let’s get to that when we go through Lenin.
Lenin was also born in 1870. He came from almost an aristocratic background. After the revolution the Communist party took a poll asking everybody to describe their class origin, Lenin proudly wrote down “aristocrat”. His father was as petty aristocrat who was actually a civil servant in the Tsarist bureaucracy. Russia, as you probably, know at that time was one of the most repressive societies on earth. The Tsarist autocracy meant the rule of one person, and dominated society even much more than any empire in western Europe like the Austrian or German, which were repressive enough. Even the nobility in Russia was essentially almost appointed by the Tsar, which was absolutely not the case in Western Europe. The Tsar could more or less take land from the nobles.
Speaker 3: Sorry to interrupt! I’m having difficulty trying to imagine that.
Loren: As you can imagine Russia was economically backward, and until the late 19th century the great majority of people were peasants. As you know, Russia was a huge country. It was expanding eastward the way the United States was expanding westward. Actually, I remember reading somewhere that the empire grew by 365 square miles a day for three hundred years. The Russians were incorporating all the countries on the southern tier, the Muslim countries like Uzbekistan, Turkestan, and all the other stans. They were constantly being incorporated into the Russian empire by military expansion and by pioneers sent out to colonize, start farms and things like that. It was a dynamic system in its own way. Russia started to industrialize in the 1860s. Of course, almost entirely foreign investment began industry. But even by the time of the revolution itself in 1917, only about 10% of the population was working class. So the peasantry was 80% to 90% of the population. Needless to say, the peasant question was the question of the early revolutionary movement in Russia. From the time that I spent in East Asia and Korea, I was quite interested to learn that the early revolutionary movements in Japan and Korea and China they all looked to Russia much more than they did to Europe. They followed events in Russia because… it was the country that seemed most similar to their own situation with this mass peasant majority. So writers like Tolstoy, for example, were widely read in translation in Asia from the 1880s onward, and many other examples like that.
Russia developed revolutionary movements of sorts well before industrialization, and it was mainly in the aristocracy. The aristocracy was a very small group of people on top of this peasant mass. You have to realize that like, for example, when Lenin was going to university, there were probably two thousand or three thousand university students in all of Russia in a population of a hundred and fifty million people. So when Lenin was talking about the role of intellectuals in the movement you’ve got to remember that he is talking about this very small group of educated people within this vast mass of people, most of whom were illiterate. And most of whom were almost literally owned by the local landlords whose estates they worked on. So the movement started from a very difficult level. So industrialization began, and with industrialization came a lot of western ideas that had already began to percolate after the French Revolution and Napoleon invaded Russia . The Russian elite was totally hooked into French culture. The aristocrats actually spoke French among themselves. They considered Russian to be a backward, barbaric language.
So, by the middle of the 19th century the Utopian Socialists like Fourier and others were all the rage in this very small world of the intelligentsia. If you’re familiar with Dostoyevsky, he was arrested in 1849 as a member of an underground Fourierist socialist group, and he was sent off to Siberia for ten years. It totally turned his head inside out, completely changed him. He became something of a reactionary, but we don’t have to get off into that. He wrote a great book , by the way, called The Devils, which is a portrait of the Russian revolution milieu; we can get to that in a minute. Marx was very disappointed that the first foreign language translation of Volume One of Capital was into Russian, as he was expecting it be into French and English. I don’t think Capital came out in English until the 1880s if I’m not mistaken. The German original came out in 1867: the Russian translation (largely done by Bakunin by the way), came out a few years later. Bakunin thought Marx’s Capital was a great book even when they had totally fallen out. But because of; the agrarian nature of Russia, the movement that really took off was called Populist, the Populist movement.
The Populist movement was a few thousand people from this educated elite that, starting in the early 1870s, decided that they were going to foment a peasant revolution by going to the people. Their main organization was called The People’s Will. In 1874 thousands of students dropped out of school and went to the countryside to try to arouse the peasantry to revolution. There had been a number pf great peasant revolutions pver several hundred years but as you can imagine, these highly educated people trying to pass themselves off as ordinary peasants in the backwaters of Russia didn’t work out too well, and most of the time the peasants actually turned them over to the police, things like that. So it was kind of a fiasco. The Populists also, after that disappointment, turned to terrorism. They managed to assassinate two Tsars, in 1881 and 1888. They assassinated a lot of other Russian officials as well. One of the things that is important for understanding Lenin is that there was no comparable social stratum anywhere in the world, then or since, really, like this Russian intelligentsia. It was just in a world of its own of extremely hardened people. The conspirators who killed the first Tsar in 1881, when they went to the scaffolds, one of them had talked. I think there was six of them and they didn’t even look at the traitor. They just were there, the hoods went on and they were hung. They didn’t say a word except “down with the Tsars” or something like that. You’ve got to realize these were just incredibly repressive conditions.
Anybody arrested with a book or a pamphlet, not to mention attending a meeting, could be sent off to Siberia or sent to these prisons that were a virtual death sentence. A very important twist on this (there is, by the way, a great book which I highly recommend. Franco Venturi, The Roots of Revolution) is a history of the whole revolutionary movement up to the appearance of Marxism. It covers everything from the French Revolution to the history of the last Populists. In the mid-1870s this young charismatic brilliant guy named Nechayev became part of the revolution. Nechayev was the ultimate conspirator. I think it’s somewhat controversial, but he apparently killed a member of his own group who was suspected of being a police spy. It became a cause celebre in the world press. Nechayev was in and out of jail many times. He was such a charismatic guy that he actually managed to recruit the guards to his own cause and they would let him escape or they would bring him books. He was really quite a character. Then he went to the west, where he met Bakunin and he convinced Bakunin that he had an underground organization of a hundred thousand people behind him in Russia and they were going to set up a new international organization. This “Nechayev episode” really gave Bakunin something of a black eye. He’d been so taken in by this. The reason I’m mentioning Nechayev is that he theorized the hard, exceptional quality of the Russian revolutionary milieu. It’s called the Revolutionary Testament. Let me just read to you briefly a couple of passages from it. This was something that did not exist in the west. Karl Marx would never had written something like this.
“The revolutionary is a lost man. He has no interests of his own, no cause of his own, no feelings, no habits, no belongings…Everything in him is absorbed by a single exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion – the revolution.” “In the depths of his being, not just in words but in deed, he has broken every tie with the civil order, with the educated world and all laws, all conventions and generally accepted conditions of this world.”
“He will be an implacable enemy of this world and if he continues to live in it that will only be to destroy it… The revolutionary despises all doctrinaires; he has rejected the science of the world, leaving it to the next generation. He knows only one science, that of destruction. He despises public opinion, he despises and hates the existing social ethic and all its expressions. For him everything that allows the triumph of the revolution is moral, everything that stands in its way is immoral. The character of a true revolutionary has no place for any romanticism such as mental enthusiasm or seduction, nor has it any place for private hatred or revenge. The revolutionary passion becomes a daily hourly passion, which most people liken to cold calculation” etc.
You get the idea? This was in extreme form the mentality of this hardened underground elite from generation to generation. I mentioned that some of the Bolsheviks later officially denounced Nechayev . But there was something about that mentality that ran through this whole milieu… Maybe when get to the origins of Stalinism, that’s something we can talk about. People like Lenin, Trotsky, all the people who were off in Switzerland or England in exile writing books and so on, they were shaped by this but people in Russia, the underground, the people who were known as the “praktiki”, the people who really did the daily work, were imbued with this ethos.
Even though the Bolsheviks were anti-Populist and criticizing Nechayev. It’s a very touchy subject. I’m going to just go off on a tangent for one minute, When Dostoevsky’s book came out, The Devils, it had a fictional character based on Nechayev. It portrayed this whole episode, the execution of the suspected spy and the whole scandal that emerged from that. After the Bolshevik Revolution and the triumph of Stalin, the complete works of Dostoevsky were published for decades, but always without that book. The Stalinists knew that he had put his finger on something important. Finally; in the 1950s, after Khrushchev came in, they published The Devils for the first time in over 30 years. Some of the Soviet bureaucrats would read it and they were just say: “how did he know?” “This guy is writing in the 1870s and he’s got down to the smallest details what would later happen when the revolution took power.”
So Lenin was growing up in the provinces; his father was this low level conventional bureaucrat but his older brother got involved with the Populist movement. He was arrested in a plot to assassinate the Tsar in about 1886. He was executed almost immediately along with other comrades. Up until that time Lenin was a kind of a dreamer, sitting in the backyard reading novels, making fun of his brother who was a biologist always studying insects and other species; “why are you wasting your time with that stuff?” The execution of his brother totally changed Lenin. He took over all of his habits.
Of course it all went into the study of society, economics and theory, and so on. He is out in the provinces; he was not immediately exposed to Marxism. By the early 1890s after he got a law degree he was already influenced by revolutionary ideas, in a confused way. But he finally got to the big time in Moscow and in St. Petersburg, the city that was then called St Petersburg was later called Leningrad; that’s where he entered the revolutionary milieu. He immediately rose very quickly because he was so brilliant, articulate and knowledgeable. He was incredibly thorough, always studying conditions, statistics and so on. He was very quickly arrested and he was sentenced to Siberia. A friend of mine who much later went to Harvard used to say “in Russia when you failed in politics you went to Siberia; in America when you fail in politics you go to Harvard.” Going to Siberia at that time was not what it became later under Stalin. If you read any biography of Lenin, you can see that the revolutionaries had books, they had access to newspapers and correspondence. Lenin himself was out hunting, fishing, ice skating in the winter, hiking; it wasn’t a bad life. Lenin’s wife came with him and they had a circle of people. So during these five years in Siberia, as you can just imagine in the days of the internet, if the newspaper came one day late from Moscow he would be pacing back and forth; he really wanted to stay on top of things.
So, he wrote his first important book, which is called ‘’The Development of Capitalism in Russia’’. It’s a massive 500-page book; I never managed to get all the way through it. Some people say it’s more important to understand what Lenin did in power than What is to be done?, which is the work that is conventionally cited. I should cite also one other aspect to the backdrop of Lenin. In the 1860s there was this guy named Chernyshevsky, who was the hero of the young Populist movement at that time. He was an older revolutionary; he also wrote all kinds of books. He was exiled and sent to Siberia around 1863, I don’t think he ever came back. But he wrote this novel that’s called What Is to Be Done? Lenin took that title for his own pamphlet. The novel portrays a main character, Rakhmetov, who more or less leads the life that is described later by Nechayev. . In other words, self-sacrifice, self-denial, everything for the revolution… Again illustrating this very special quality of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia, Lenin apparently read that book twenty times, so it was one of his favorite novels. From a literary point of view, it’s unreadable, but it was absolutely a “best seller” in the revolutionary milieu in Russia in 1860s.
Victor Serge in his Memoirs has a portrait of Chernyshevsky, just as he was being humiliated in public, just as he was being sent into exile. and he writes “the old man, his head hung, grey hair, looking really miserable and he was going to be riding in a cart all the way to Siberia.. But would it have been better if he had become an academic?” I really always loved that formulation; it’s one of the reason I never became an academic.
So Lenin wrote his book; the reason why this book The Development of Capitalism in Russia is considered to be so important is that Lenin identifies (I think) five different strata of the Russian peasantry. When he actually took power, all the agricultural policies were based on the analysis of that book. Recently, this guy name John Marot has written a book about the peasant question in the Russian revolution. If you look on my website ‘Break Their Haughty Power’ ( breaktheirhaughtypower.org )you’ll find a review of it, which summarizes what he says. He basically said that Lenin got it all wrong.
Indeed there were rich peasants, poor peasants, peasants in between, these five different groups but, in reality, when they were threatened as peasants, they all came together in a certain way. So a lot of Lenin’s policies on the agrarian question were kind of wrong, at best. But that’s something else to talk about more when we get to Stalin.
Lenin finally was freed from Siberia, and goes back, and then he goes into exile in the west, Switzerland and later to England. Then he writes his other important book. It’s a little book, I thought of having us reading it for today, but it is a hundred pages; it’s called What Is To Be Done? Lenin sets out what he considers to be the way of having a revolutionary organization in the conditions of Tsarist repression and its police state; that’s where he comes up with this idea of the vanguard party. It’s not often pointed out but I will point it out that this guy Lassalle in Germany had really anticipated much of what Lenin said; because; what Lassalle was always arguing for was this military-like grouping of special professional revolutionaries. You will never find anything in the writing of Karl Marx about professional revolutionaries. Lassalle theorized it and it was taken over generally; it was considered like the blue of the sky in certain parts of the Russian movement. That’s what Lenin theorizes in this book What Is To Be Done?
There is a huge controversy about what exactly it means. There is whole eight hundred page book called Lenin Rediscovered by a guy named Lars Lih, which is definitely worth reading. He reconstructs the whole milieu to which Lenin addresses this book. It’s also interesting that on the title page of the first Russian edition of What Is To Be Done?, there is a quote from Lassalle saying “the party strengthens itself by purging itself.” Lars Lih in his appendix, actually provides his own translation of What Is To Be Done? in which Lenin comes across as a nice guy and that quote is missing from the translation. I contacted a couple of people I know who read Russian and asked if this word “purge” is the same word which was used in the mass trails and executions.Yes, indeed. It’s a frightening subject and people been arguing about it ever since, particularly since 1905 and particularly since Stalinism. What exactly does this pamphlet mean?
Speaker 3: When was it published and whem it was written?
Loren: It was written in 1902, and published in 1902 or 1903. In 1903 there was a congress of the Bolshevik party in Russia where this famous split occurred between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. It was really over the questions raised in What Is to Be Done? What it really came down to was a party resolution on who could be a member of the Bolshevik Party. Lenin was arguing for a tighter, more disciplined definition of membership. Whereas Martov, who was kind of the leader of the other faction said “people who pay dues and come to an occasional meeting and involve themselves in a peripheral way, they should be considered members too.” It’s funny that at the congress itself Lenin and Martov kept going back and forth saying “why don’t you make the formulation? No! No!, you do it.” Finally Lenin’s resolution carried and that became the beginning of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split. We’ll talk about that more when we get to the origins of Trotsky and Stalin next week. So these are the two major theoretical works of Lenin. By the way, Rosa Luxemburg wrote several critiques of Lenin – Problems of Russian Social Democracy and so on, in which she already zeroed in on the kind of elitist character of some of Lenin’s formulations. It’s a very complicated debate… Rosa Luxemburg is somebody that everybody likes. The liberals like Rosa Luxemburg because they saw her as kind of a democrat with a small “d”. Mensheviks like her because they see her as a critic of Lenin. Leninists like her because; she was a tough- minded revolutionary. When she was murdered in 1919, Lenin gave a funeral oration for her in which he said “Rosa Luxemburg was wrong on the national question.
She was wrong in the question of organization. She was wrong about economics. But as we know an eagle can sometimes fly lower than a chicken, but a chicken can never fly as high as an eagle, and Rosa Luxemburg will always be for us an eagle.” So even Lenin who disagreed with her on so many things recognized her as kindred spirit, another revolutionary that he disagreed with. So, there is a whole spectrum of opinion about Rosa Luxemburg. I believe that…, actually one of her pamphlets was published in the 1960s in the United States in English under the title “Leninism or Democracy?” which is absolutely not the title in German or Russian. But that’s how she was kind of integrated into a certain kind of ideology.
Lenin is off in Switzerland in 1905, and was puzzled by these things called soviets; what are they? But pretty quickly he recognizes that they are something very unique and very important. I don’t think he ever got back to Russia at that time. “1905” lasted for almost two years, just as Luxemburg describes in her pamphlet; one strike after another in whole regions. But finally, the revolution dies down.
Let me just go into hopefully one more theoretical background here. At this time, everybody and I mean everybody thought that the Russian revolution was going to be a bourgeois revolution. So when 1905, came along, the big demand of the movement was for a constitution, the constitutional assembly, elections, freedom of the press, right to trade union organizing etc. And the feeling that is striking when you read The Mass Strike, as great as this revolution is, it’s about putting an end to the Tsar’s autocracy and replacing that with bourgeois democracy, even though she is very clear that the actual liberals, the Russian bourgeois, are bunch of weaklings and in no position to lead this revolutionary movement for their own bourgeois democracy.
So, it would be a bourgeois revolution made by the working class. It’s only Trotsky who already in 1905 realized that, because of this fragility of the Russian bourgeoisie, there could be a working class revolution in Russia. He began to work this out in what’s called the theory of permanent revolution, which was a term already used by Marx. Let’s talk about that next time when we do Trotsky and Stalin. Trotsky was way out in left field at that time. He’s the only important person who was arguing that. So twelve years later, in January 1917, Lenin was still in Switzerland and was invited to speak to the Swiss Socialist Youth. He talked to the Swiss Socialist Youth and said, ‘’Oh, you know, the bourgeois revolution will happen in Russia maybe in about 1950’’. Eight months later, he’s in power at the head of a working class revolution. So, it just shows how removed from reality theory can be, how this reality was moving so quickly. Even the most radical people were having a hard time keeping up. Lenin had the slogan “be as radical as reality”. This is a perfect illustration of it.
Okay! So in 1905 the Tsar is half-defeated, and does grant a constitutuent assembly. But within a couple of years he’s turned that just into nothing but a showpiece. I think at one point in the later years of ebb, in about 1910 or 1911, Lenin had eleven correspondents in all of Russia. Three or four years before he had been in touch with hundreds of people all over the place, lots of people were driven into exile in Siberia, and then World War 1 started. So this is where Lenin and Luxemburg really came together. Now one important thing to tie this all together; you recall this guy Kautsky and the so-called “center” of social democracy. Lenin revered Kautsky, whereas Rosa Luxemburg by 1910, from a whole series of incidents inside the German Social Democracy , had decided that Kautsky was not.., they were not in the same camp. There was effectively a break between them. The war started and, this is really quite remarkable. Up to that time it was always believed, and there was congress after congress of the Socialist International saying that in the event of a war in Europe all working class parties will oppose their own bourgeoisie and unite with the working class parties of all other countries and do whatever they could, maybe make the revolution.
Along comes World War I and every party in Europe collapsed into the patriotic hysteria in its own country. There were just massive crowds in the street and anybody who openly opposed the war in the street ran a good chance of being lynched. Interestingly, for some damn reason, only the Serbian Socialist Party refused to support its own bourgeoisie in the war. But that again is a whole other story. And interestingly the American Socialist Party also opposed American entry into the war. The U.S. didn’t enter the war for two and a half years but there was a strong left opposition, with the IWW as well, against the war. So the Second International collapses and you know Lenin is sitting in Switzerland and he gets the first newspapers and he can’t believe it; he thinks that the newspapers were police forgeries, about the German Social Democrats voting the war credits in the German parliament. But in fact it was true, so this already shows a very important difference between Lenin and Luxemburg in terms of their different insights into what was going on in the European movement as a whole. But Lenin quickly recovered and in 1915 there was a congress in a small town in Switzerland called Zimmerwald , where all the anti-war socialists of all of Europe came together and debated what to do. Even there, Lenin stood out as the extreme radical, more radical than Rosa Luxemburg. Some people were for peace without annexations, others were for a negotiated settlement. Whatever! There were all these different solutions. I think Luxemburg’s formulation was “peace without annexation.” Lenin said “turn the inter-imperialist war into civil war.” This was the opportunity for the working class revolution in the western world, and very shortly after this, things started to happen that looked like they were going that way, and there are mutinies in the French army. There were also mutinies in 1918, in the German Navy.
It was just clear that the different governments in Europe were barely keeping the lid on and forcing people to go on fighting. And finally in February 1917, there was a demonstration for Women’s Day in Petrograd and I think the police attacked the demo and maybe fired on it, and it led to the overthrow of the Tsar. Again showing how nobody, as Luxemburg says in this mass strike pamphlet, nobody plans these things. (Her formulation was “The mistakes of a mass movement in motion are more valuable than the decisions of the best central committee.” We can see the conditions; we can see that these governments were sitting on a volcano. But when, how, where, it’s all going to break out? It’s just totally beyond the control of the most intelligent central committee. So the Tsar falls and an actual bourgeois democracy is set up. It goes through a whole series of changes and winds up within a few months under the leadership of this guy Kerensky. And what does Kerensky do? Everybody who made the revolution wants the war to end and they want land to the peasants. And so even though the government continues to pursue the war, the peasants en masse start go back home and start seizing the land of the aristocracy. By the time of the October Revolution, most of the estates have been broken up and seized by the peasants living on them. There was nothing that this so-called provisional government could do about it. Lenin comes back in April of 1917 and he’s greeted at the Finland Station, which is the big train station in Petrograd, by fifty thousand people, masses of people cheering him.
They’re all taken with this idea that it’s a two stage bourgeois revolution and that bourgeois democracy is the goal of the revolution, it’s already there. And Pravda, the main newspaper of the Bolsheviks, edited by Stalin, is printing these articles about how great Kerensky and how great all these people in the provisional government are. Lenin gets off the train and makes a speech in which he denounces his own party and denounces its whole collaboration with the Kerensky regime, and says “look at what the working class is doing; the working class is headed for proletarian revolution” which will be as radical as reality. It’s kind of “We are the leaders, we must follow them.” And the most hardened Bolsheviks were just totally shocked by this speech. Some people said Lenin had become a Bakuninist or a putchist or whatever. It just led to an uproar within the party. But, Lenin being Lenin, with his prestige, , years of hammering away… This is the point at which, according to Trotsky, (and I think it’s true) Lenin and Trotsky are reconciled. Lenin accepts this idea of permanent revolution as the idea that the proletariat was going to go beyond the bourgeois revolution and make the proletarian revolution, together with revolution in the West. And that’s a very important point because they never imagined that a working class socialist revolution in backward Russia with 10 to 15% of the population in the working class could possibly build socialism. I think maybe I should stop there because; everything after that sort of leads very quickly to the Stalin and Trotsky battle, which we’ll deal next. But please some questions, comments. Let me drink some water…
Speaker 3: You didn’t finish the story about what happened to Luxemburg’s party collapsing.
Loren: That’s a very good point! Okay! So, back to Germany; Rosa Luxembourg is imprisoned first of all, after she makes some speeches against the war; she and a number of other anti-war socialists go to jail. And she wrote (you can look it up online) what is called the Junius Pamphlet which she published anonymously under the pseudonym Junius, denouncing the war, and denouncing the Social Democrats’ support for the war. Of course at the beginning just like everywhere else it’s a very small group of people who were seriously against the war but they started to make contact with each other. By 1916 they led a major split in the SPD and they’ set up another party that was called the Independent Social Democratic Party. It had a very serious working class base including a whole network of shop stewards in Berlin and other major cities, who were very antiwar and ready to move. So the war continues, the naval mutiny happens shortly after that. But it was very curious that from a purely military point of view at that time, it looked to many people like Germany still had a very good chance of winning the war because it hadn’t been defeated anywhere. The United States had just entered and hadn’t yet really become a factor. Then all of a sudden, a month or two before Germany surrendered, the top general staff said “this is hopeless, we’re going to lose. Let’s try to make peace now and get the best possible deal.”
But after the war, because of that situation; it gave rise to this thing that was known as the ‘stab in the back legend’ that blamed the Socialists and the Jews for having sabotaged Germany’s victory. But this is now getting into the post-war period, something of another story. So then as the government collapses, the revolution breaks out all over Germany. Workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils are set up all over the place, with red flags. But it’s very curious; in the main plaza in downtown Berlin, a million people congregated on the first day. At one end of the plaza were Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the other major anti-war figure; who had both been in jail. They’re calling for the immediate establishment of the Soviet Republic of Germany, while at the other end of the plaza, with the same crowd, all the Social Democrats were talking about the need to immediately establish a bourgeois Republic and the crowd is cheering both of them. So it kind of shows a certain level of confusion about what exactly was going on.
The Kaiser, the head of Imperial Germany, had to flee into exile, and the military begged the Social Democrats to take power. They were the only group that could control the working class. Maybe we should do another session on the German revolution because; it gets very complicated. So suddenly the centre and right wing of the Social Democratic Party are the government in Germany, supported by the army and getting ready to crush the left wing. By that time, Luxemburg and her faction had split off into what became known as the Spartakusbund, and shortly after that, they would rename themselves the Communist Party of Germany. In January 1919, some members of the Spartacists and other people from around Germany tried to make a revolution. And it was a little premature but Luxemburg and Liebknecht both said “when the masses go into the streets, we go with them.” They were both killed in January 1919. This begins a whole different chapter in the development of German Socialism and Communism but that’s essentially what happened. That’s what happened to Rosa Luxemburg. Almost immediately after her death all these different versions of the true Rosa began to be developed, but again it gets off into a whole other story. So, let’s have a discussion and questions but also let’s go over this text a little bit because; there’s just some really great formulations are in there. So, I hope I didn’t overwhelm everyone with all kinds of facts and stories. You know it’s just an incredible period of history.