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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 24 New Delhi June 4, 2016

Towards Rediscovery of Rosa Luxemburg, Maligned by Stalin

Monday 6 June 2016


by Nityananda Ghosh

The Socialist Vision and The Silenced Voices of Democracy – New Perspectives – Part I, Rosa Luxemburg by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta; Seriban, Bakhrahat, South 24-Parganas district, West Bengal; pp. 137 + xiv; Rs 495.

With the Leninist model of vanguardist Communist Party as leader of the socialist revolution being questioned the world over, the concept of democratic centralism (again formulated by Lenin) is also being debated everywhere. In practice, DC is bureaucratic centralism as centralism is dominant, and democracy recedes into the background. This has been reflected in the hierarchical leadership of almost every Leninist party.

Lenin staunchly believed that a centralised political party should lead the socialist revolution. Rosa Luxemburg (hereinafter RL) took an opposite stand and upheld the primacy of democracy without decimating centralism. Democracy, which is not only dear to the masses but party cadres as well, was for Rosa embedded in liberty or libertarian freedom. For one of the greatest Marxists like her, “freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently”. The Poland-born revolutionary was the most brilliant theoretician of the German working class during the crucial first two decades of the 20th century.

Prof Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, formerly Surendranath Banerjee Chair of Political Science at the University of Calcutta and a Comintern scholar of global repute, has done a timely job by writing a sleek but scholarly book on RL. This was largely possible as he has been a participant in every international conference on Rosa Luxemburg since 1998, organised by the International Rosa Luxemburg Society (IRLS), committed to demolish the tendentious ‘Luxemburgism’ (under the Stalinist era of annihilation of freedom and rediscovery of undistorted theoretical contribution of the great revolutionary thinker. Significantly, the title of the present treatise is The Socialist Vision and The Silenced Voices of Democracy – New Perspectives – Part I, Rosa Luxemburg. In 1994 he edited a volume on Rosa Luxemburg: Readings in Revolution and Organisation: Rosa Luxemburg and Her Critics. Since then this is the first of a three-volume work on unveiling the silent voices of democracy (freedom) during the last century. The next two volumes will be on Nikolai Bukharin and Antonio Gramsci. On all the three, Datta Gupta is recognised as an outstanding scholar in Leftist circles abroad.

In this 137-page book, Datta Gupta brings to light the panorama of efforts of a group of scholars to rescue RL from the maligners who mischievously presented the great Marxist as one who preached a counter-revolutionary theory of Menshevism (termed as ‘Luxemburgism’ by Grigory Zinoviev with the blessings and endorsement of Josef Stalin). And the yeomen task of salvaging was possible due to the IRLS and its ongoing endeavour. The five chapters in it—Rosa Luxemburg: The New Historiography, Rosa Luxemburg: Vision of Socialism and Democracy, Rosa Luxemburg: Spontaneity contra Centralism?, International Communism and the Destiny of Rosa Luxemburg and, finally, Rosa Luxemburg and the World Today—are sequentially structured. For researchers and serious readers, the URLs will immensely help one read the original texts on internet, although most of them are in German.

The author showed judiciousness in focusing specially on RL’s debate with Lenin on centralism in a proletarian party. He quotes Henry Topper, a front-ranking scholar on RL, who terms the perceptions of Lenin and RL on DC, as inferred by SDG, as ‘mutually exclusive’. In contrast to Lenin’s democratic centralism (DC), Topper states, is RL’s alternative centralism in which RL reposes faith in the role of the party which, in her opinion, ought to be “a vehicle for expression of the interests of the class itself”. Luxemburg uses the expression of the party ‘speaking for the class’ in the sense of communicating the actions of the class, not as the active part in determining those actions. “..The organisation and the unity of the class must come from the development of the class itself and must reflect a real unity of the class… The centralism of the party is a product of the fullest democracy and can develop over time.” (p. 80). So RL did not oppose centralism in principle in the party but disagreed with Lenin’s vanguardist centralism.

In Leninist parties, we often see, the power is concentrated in the hands of the General Secretary and Polit-Bureau or at the most in the policy-making Central Committee. There is centralism that subordinates inner-party dissent to centralism. Thus in the name of democratic centralism, Leninist parties are run by bureaucratic centralism. RL had an uncommon foresight that made her write down and repeatedly assert that freedom should be essentially guaranteed for the dissenters.

GERMAN historian Ottokar Luban is perhaps next only to Narihiko Ito among historians and political theorists on the contributions of RL to Marxism and practice thereof, her struggle on the genesis of Luxemburg-Lenin differences on centralism. He noted that RL’s sharp differences with “Lenin’s ultra-centralist party concept in 1904 and 1918 was not an occasional polemic” but originated from “the fundamental differences in the way to realise socialism”. The author refers to RL’s ‘Credo: On The State of Russian Democracy’ in Rosa Luxemburg Reader (ed. Peter Huddis and Kevin Anderson, New York, Monthly Review Press, 2004) which, according to Luban, was first discovered in 1991 (presumably in German). RL occasionally made scathing criticism of Lenin. In her view, “Lenin’s inclination to resolve problems and difficulties in the development of the Russian Party mechanistically with fists and knives, an inclination that is dangerous for the party”. (Quoted on page 81) This happened during her lifetime when Lenin was at the helm of Bolshevik rule. Unbelievable to many, such things happened, RL noted, much before Stalin came to power. She was killed in Germany in 1919. Luban scooped out a hitherto unknown archival document (handwritten) by RL’s comrade H Walecki, a founding member of the Communist Party of Poland. It was about the long conversations the two had in Berlin in December 1918. “She emphasised again the issues separating her (from the Bolsheviks) on the agrarian question, the question of nationalities and the question of terror.” (Ottokar Luban : “Rosa Luxemburg’s Criticism of Lenin’s Ultra Centralistic Party Concept and of the Bolshevik Revolution”)

Materials handled and reproduced crisply by Datta Gupta very clearly show the distinctive differences between RL’s alternative socialism and Lenin’s socialism, based on Bolshevism. Relatively, her socialism was close to Marxian thoughts. Luban and other scholars, such as Annelies Laschitza (the most authoritative biographer of RL, according to Datta Gupta), Huddis, Norman Geras, Michael Lowy and Gilbert Badia, assert that Rosa Luxemburg conceived the socialist revolution by the ‘great majority of working people’.

But RL and Lenin had similarity of thoughts. For instance, she was one of the proponents of a new international after the opportunistic stand of the Second International especially on the question of war. “She was in active communication with Lenin on this issue (formation of Comintern)”, the author states, quoting John Riddel who made a “very systematic presentation …that led to formation of the Third International”. But there too she was against an unseemly haste. Hugo Eberlein, a prominent member of the Spartacus group, was a delegate of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) at the First Congress of the Comintern where he ‘paraphrased’ RL’s viewpoint: “It is absolutely necessary to create a new revolutionary International clearly opposed to the Second, reformist International. But the time to found it has not yet come. For the existence of a new, revolutionary International capable of action was dependent on that of several revolutionary parties in Western Europe. Immediately founding the International when there was still only one Communist Party in the West, our own—and it was only just formed—could only weaken the idea of a revolutionary International.” (Italics in the original, p. 105) RL said these things to Eberlein three days before her assassination. Perhaps she was prophetically right.

Datta Gupta deserves praise for the sleek book for several reasons. First, it is in short an attempt to rediscover Rosa Luxemburg who was maligned by Stalin. Second, it generates a debate that is needed. Third, research and debate on Marxism or Marxian discipline should not be confined to or dictated by official Marxists. Last but not the least, it’s a very good read.

The reviewer is a cultural activist.

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