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Did Lenin arrange the killing of Rosa Luxemburg?

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In 1902 Lenin published a pamphlet, “What Is To Be Done?”, where he argued for a party of professional revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of Tsarism. He continued to argue the case for a small party of activists with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters at the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party held in London in 1903.

His long-time friend, Jues Martov, disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists. Martov won the vote 28-23 but Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.

Lenin’s main critic was the Marxist philosopher, Rosa Luxemburg, who was based in Germany. In 1904 she published “Organizational Questions of the Russian Democracy”, where she argued: "Lenin’s thesis is that the party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party. It should have the right to appoint the effective organs of all local bodies from Geneva to Liege, from Tomsk to Irkutsk. It should also have the right to impose on all of them its own ready-made rules of party conduct... The Central Committee would be the only thinking element in the party. All other groupings would be its executive limbs." Luxemburg disagreed with Lenin's views on centralism and suggested that any successful revolution that used this strategy would develop into a communist dictatorship.

Lenin and Luxemburg came into conflict again on the outbreak of the First World War. Luxemburg, were opposed to Germany's participation in the war. In December, 1914, she joined with Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin to establish an underground political organization called Spartakusbund (Spartacus League).

In 1915 Luxemburg wrote about the war in her highly influential pamphlet, “The Crisis in the German Social Democracy”. Luxemburg rejected the view of the Social Democratic Party leadership that the war would bring democracy to Russia: "It is true that socialism gives to every people the right of independence and the freedom of independent control of its own destinies. But it is a veritable perversion of socialism to regard present-day capitalist society as the expression of this self-determination of nations. Where is there a nation in which the people have had the right to determine the form and conditions of their national, political and social existence?"

Luxemburg also pointed out that Germany was also fighting democratic states such as Britain and France: "Germany certainly has not the right to speak of a war of defence, but France and England have little more justification. They too are protecting, not their national, but their world political existence, their old imperialistic possessions, from the attacks of the German upstart." To Luxemburg, this was an imperialist war, not a war of political liberation.

In the pamphlet Luxemburg quoted Friedrich Engels as saying: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” She added: "A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism.... The world war today is demonstrably not only murder on a grand scale; it is also suicide of the working classes of Europe. The soldiers of socialism, the proletarians of England, France, Germany, Russia, and Belgium have for months been killing one another at the behest of capital. They are driving the cold steel of murder into each other’s hearts. Locked in the embrace of death, they tumble into a common grave."

Luxemburg argued that it was important to stop the First World War through mass action. This brought her into conflict with Lenin who had argued that "the slogan of peace is wrong - the slogan must be, turn the imperialist war into civil war." Lenin believed that a civil war in Russia would bring down the old order and enable the Bolsheviks to gain power. Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches took the side of the Mensheviks in their struggle with the Bolsheviks. As a result Lenin favoured the Polish section led by Karl Radek over those of Luxemburg.

On 1st May, 1916, the Spartacus League decided to come out into the open and organized a demonstration against the First World War in Berlin. Several of its leaders, including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested and imprisoned. While in prison, Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. Luxemburg, like most leading Marxists, condemned Lenin’s actions. While in prison Luxemburg wrote “The Russian Revolution”, where she criticized Lenin for using dictatorial and terrorist methods to overthrow the government in Russia. "Terror has not crushed us. How can you put your trust in terror."

Once again this work showed that she was opposed to the activities of the Bolsheviks. She quotes Leon Trotsky as saying: "As Marxists we have never been idol worshippers of formal democracy.” She replied that: "All that that really means is: We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom – not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy – not to eliminate democracy altogether."

Luxemburg went onto argue: "But socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land, after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. 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."

Luxemburg was not released until October, 1918, when Max von Baden granted an amnesty to all political prisoners. In Germany elections were held for a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution for the new Germany. As a believer in democracy, she assumed that her party would contest these universal, democratic elections. However, other members were being influenced by the fact that Lenin had dispersed by force of arms a democratically elected Constituent Assembly in Russia. Luxemburg rejected this approach and wrote in the party newspaper: "The Spartacus League will never take over governmental power in any other way than through the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian masses in all Germany, never except by virtue of their conscious assent to the views, aims, and fighting methods of the Spartacus League."

On 1st January, 1919, at a convention of the Spartacus League, Luxemburg was outvoted on this issue. As Bertram D. Wolfe has pointed out: "In vain did she (Luxemburg) try to convince them that to oppose both the Councils and the Constituent Assembly with their tiny forces was madness and a breaking of their democratic faith. They voted to try to take power in the streets, that is by armed uprising. Almost alone in her party, Rosa Luxemburg decided with a heavy heart to lend her energy and her name to their effort."

The Spartakist Rising began in Berlin. Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democrat Party and Germany's new chancellor, called in the German Army and the Freikorps to bring an end to the rebellion. By 13th January, 1919 the rebellion had been crushed and most of its leaders were arrested. This included Rosa Luxemburg who was arrested with Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck on 16th January. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered while be taken to the prison. It is interesting that Pieck was spared. He was a Lenin loyalist. He was released and in 1918 he helped to establish the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). The KPD was completely under the control of Lenin and later Stalin. After the Red Army occupied Eastern Germany at the end of the Second World War, Pieck was appointed President of the newly-established German Democratic Republic (GDR).


Is it possible that Lenin was working with the German authorities in order to get rid of his difficult German Marxists? It would not be the first time he worked with the secret service to get rid of his enemies. See my posting on Roman Malinovsky and the Russian Secret Service (1912-1918).


On the 1st March, 1917, the Tsar Nicholas II abdicated leaving the Provisional Government in control of the country. Lenin was now desperate to return to Russia to help shape the future of the country. The German Foreign Ministry, who hoped that Lenin's presence in Russia would help bring the war on the Eastern Front to an end, provided a special train for Lenin and 27 other Bolsheviks to travel to Petrograd. This move benefited both parties. Lenin took over the government and he then withdrew the Russian Army on the Eastern Front.

We also know that Lenin used whatever methods necessary in order to maintain his position as dictator of the Soviet Union. Unlike Stalin, he was willing to arrange the deaths of women. After the revolution Lenin was having difficulty with Angelica Balabanoff, the secretary of the Comintern. She was complaining about the way that Lenin was dealing with his critics in the Communist Party. A document was recently released that showed that in 1922 Lenin was planning to send Balabanoff to Turkestan, “where cholera was raging”. This never happened because she sensibly decided to resign and escape to Western Europe.


John Reed was not so lucky. In 1917 Reed was a journalist in Russia during the Bolshevik uprising. Reed's experiences in Russia were recorded in his book, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919). Lenin later claimed it was the best book written about the Russian Revolution.

Reed returned to America and in 1919 helped form the Communist Party of the United States. Reed returned to Russia in 1920 and attended the Second Congress of the Communist International in Moscow. According to the author of Strange Communists I Have Known (1966): "The order of business for the Second Congress had been determined by Lenin. Having concluded that the great push for world revolution had failed, and with it the attempt to smash the old socialist parties and trade unions, Lenin set it as the task of all revolutionaries to return to or infiltrate the old trade unions. As always, Lenin took it for granted that whatever conclusion he had come to in evaluation and in strategy and tactics was infallibly right. In the Comintern, as in his own party, his word was law."

Reed and other members of the Communist Party of the United States and the Communist Party of Great Britain disagreed with this policy and tried to start a debate on the subject. To do so, they needed to add English to the already adopted German, French and Russian, as an official language of debate. This idea was rejected. Reed became disillusioned with the way Lenin had become a virtual dictator of Russia. His friend, Angelica Balabanoff later recalled: "When he came to see me after the Congress, he was in a terrible state of depression. He looked old and exhausted. The experience had been a terrible blow."

Lenin arranged for Reed to visit Baku after the conference that was suffering from an outbreak of typhus. Reed caught the disease and died on 19th October, 1920.


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