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Donny Gluckstein

A rejoinder to Alex Callinicos

(Autumn 1984)

From International Socialism 2 : 25, Autumn 1984), pp 108–116.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In International Socialism 2 : 24 Alex Callinicos’s article Party and Class before 1917 appeared. This is a critique of my article called The Missing Party in IS 2 : 22. Alex criticised me for ‘an attempt to absolve Rosa Luxemburg for her failure to build a revolutionary party’. Actually Alex’s article should have been called Rosa Luxemburg and the missing party. He put on her shoulders practically the complete responsibility for the non-existence of a revolutionary party prior to the First World War in Germany, and by implication in the rest of western Europe.

This both honours and insults Luxemburg far too much. It seems one person alone, by holding wrong theoretical views on the party prevented the building of a revolutionary party not only in Germany – the country where she lived – but also in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Norway and Sweden. Rosa Luxemburg must not only have been a genius, but omnipotent and omnipresent.

It is also an insult to her, because it does not take into account the fact that at the age of 16 she broke politically and organisationally with reformism. From that time she was associated with a Polish group called Proletariat, soon becoming its most important intellectual leader. Then in 1895 she led a split from the Polish Socialist Democratic Party of Russian Poland, which in 1900 merged with the Lithuanian Social Democrats to form, under the leadership of Luxemburg and Leo Jogisches, the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. This extremely disciplined party never fudged its differences with the PPS and played a distinguished role in the 1905 revolution.

The demarcation between Luxemburg’s Polish party and the reformist PPS took place earlier and was sharper than the demarcation of Bolsheviks from Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks split from the Mensheviks in 1903, eight years after Luxemburg split from the PPS. Lenin’s party merged again with the Mensheviks in 1906, split to all intents and purposes a year later, and formally broke relations in 1912. Still, as late as 1917, and even after the October revolution, a number of Bolshevik branches had not split from the Mensheviks.

The Bolsheviks in many cities were refusing split from the Mensheviks. In many workers’ centres, such as Ekaterinburg, Perm, Tula, Orel, Baku, Kolomna, Yaroslav, Kiev and Voronezh, the Bolsheviks did not break away from the Mensheviks until the end of May.

In Minsk, Tiflis, Nizhni-Novgorod, Omsk, Tomsk, Odessa, Nikolaev, Zlatoust, Kostroma, Sevastopol and Vitebsk, the Bolsheviks split from the Mensheviks only in June. In many other centres they did so only in August or September. 351 party organisations remained joint Bolshevik-Menshevik organisations in many cases as late as September. In fact, in some centres the Bolsheviks separated from the Mensheviks only after the October revolution. [1]

It is true that before 1914 Luxemburg did not establish a revolutionary party in Germany, with detrimental results in the post-war revolution. Alex explains this entirely by reference to personal traits such as ‘excessive pessimism and optimism.’ [2] This explanation does not only fall far short of explaining the host of western European countries which lacked revolutionary parties, it cannot even make sense of Luxemburg’s own conduct in Poland. Still less does it show why before the war Lenin, who had developed the theory of the party furthest, was just as far from calling for splits in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) as Luxemburg herself.

Yet it is a fact that until 1914 Lenin did not advocate a split in the German SPD, nor in any other section of the Second International in western Europe. He did not even suggest that revolutionaries there should organise themselves inside those parties as a separate grouping.

Of course Lenin was too busy leading the Russian party to participate personally in the affairs of the socialist movements elsewhere, but it would be a sheer insult to his internationalism to assume that his dozens of pre-war articles on socialist parties round Europe were written in total ignorance of their subject or concealed his real views. Lenin always saw the German socialist movement as the most important of the international working class movements, and followed its policies very meticulously. At this time his attitude to the tendencies in the Marxist parties of the West remained consistent. In December 1906 Lenin wrote in an article entitled The Crisis of Menshevism that: ‘Right up to the social revolution there will inevitably always be an opportunist and a revolutionary wing of Social Democracy’. [3] This was no passing phase in his thinking. At this time Lenin nowhere advocated an international split, believing optimistically that the western Social Democratic parties would not be diverted by the reformist currents within them.

In July 1912, in an article on the Italian Socialist Party Lenin says: ‘two basic trends (revolutionary and reformist – DG) exist in one form or another in all socialist parties ... The leaders of the working class are not angels, saints or heroes, but people like anyone else. They make mistakes. The Party puts them right.’ [4] A year later commenting on internal disputes in the British Socialist Party between the arch-patriot Hyndman and the left, Lenin repeats: ‘The Social Democrats do not regard themselves as saints; they know that now and again the proletariat becomes infected by some dirty disease from the bourgeoisie ... In Britain, too, they will certainly cure the disease.’ [5] Hyndman was in the BSP right into the war.

Finally, as late as April 1914, in an article entitled What should not be copied from the German Labour Movement Lenin noted that ‘At the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart, half the German delegation turned out to be sham socialists.’ Still there is no hint of a call for a split. He concludes an attack on the German reformists saying: ‘But the merits of German Social-Democracy are merits ... despite them.’ [6]

Before 1914 no leading revolutionary proposed a split in western Europe. Yet, in sharp contrast, there were four countries in which revolutionaries were organised in parties of their own – Russia, Poland, Bulgaria and Serbia. We have mentioned the Russians and Poles. The Bulgarian Social Democratic Party split in 1903, the revolutionary left being led by Dmitri Blagoev. When the war broke out these eastern Marxist Parties – Lenin’s Bolsheviks, Luxemburg’s Polish organisation, Blagoev’s group and the Serbians – took a position of revolutionary opposition to imperialism. The Serbians’ stand was most impressive because the war had started as an attack by the Austro-Hungarian Empire on little Serbia. In that country, to appeal for internationalism required tough politics. In the west only individual Marxists adopted a position of revolutionary opposition to the war.

My article tried to grapple with the question of why there was no revolutionary party in any west European country, nor even a viable organisation of revolutionaries inside the Social Democratic Party. If it happened only in Germany, one could put the responsibility on Luxemburg (although the argument would have been flawed because she did after all build such a party in Poland). The fact that Lenin, too, built a revolutionary party in Eastern Europe but did not advocate building such organisations in the west appears as a puzzle, unless we assume both he and Rosa Luxemburg suffered from schizophrenia.

It is of course true that Luxemburg was not as sharp and clear on the nature of the party as Lenin. But she was still a genius. And if she was not a Lenin, certainly she was superior to Blagoev, not to speak of Zinoviev or Stalin. How can we explain that the last three understood the need for a revolutionary party while Luxemburg somehow failed to see it in relation to Germany? The evident variation of eastern revolutionaries from the Second International orthodoxy of Karl Kautsky was not seen in general terms. Right up until the war the Bolsheviks, for example, described their policy as a purely local adaptation necessitated by the conditions of Tsarism. [7] Furthermore, it was easier for Lenin to mould a politically homogeneous party almost from scratch, than it was for Luxemburg to split the mass party of the SPD. When Lenin spoke about splitting Russian Social Democracy he always insisted the Bolsheviks were the majority (as their name implies).

To build a serious revolutionary party it is necessary to show the connection between the struggle against the state for political power and the day-to-day industrial struggle of the workers. In Russia, Poland, Bulgaria and Serbia the relation between economics and politics was very close. A worker on strike came into headlong conflict with the police, if not the army. Even in those countries there was a tendency to separate the economic from the political – the phenomenon of ‘Economism’. But this was a very weak movement that failed to take root as it had in western Europe. Here in the west, however, conditions encouraged its growth. The capitalist economy had expanded steadily, keeping industrial struggle low for decades. Workers were organised in mass unions controlled by the bureaucracy and so it was incomparably more difficult to tie the economic struggle to the political. It was usually the trade union bureaucracy rather than the police who broke strikes. It was the same trade union bureaucracy that sectionalised workers’ struggle. This was at the heart of my article.

Rosa Luxemburg indeed wrote far and away the best essay on the relation between industrial and political struggle, The Mass Strike, but note that all her examples – the core of the work – are from the experience of Russia and Poland. The actual class struggle in Germany does not earn itself a mention. The aim of the essay was to bring the Russian and Polish spirit into the German movement. But the ‘mass strike debate’ Luxemburg initiated in Germany was always at the level of resolutions to SPD Congresses and negotiations between party leaders and union bureaucrats. By 1914 the combination of undeveloped theory on the party (Bolshevism was not yet raised into a general theory) plus reformist conditions meant that no powerful revolutionary current existed in western Europe.

The dialectical unity of industrial and political struggle on a large scale, and hence the breach in the wall of reformism in western Europe took place only after the October revolution. The unity expressed itself in a very advanced form of organisation of the working class as such – the Soviet. (Of course the revolutionary party expresses the unity of industrial and political struggle in a much higher form than the Soviet, but the party encompasses only a section of the class). It is an incontrovertible historical fact that in the west the growth of workers’ council (Soviet) movements came before the emergence of revolutionary parties. It was therefore on the question of Soviet power as opposed to parliamentarism that the Comintern defined the supporters of Communism.

Surveying this development in 1920 Lenin said: ‘Before the war it seemed that the main division in the working class movement was the division into socialists and anarchists ... Owing to the war ... the old issues are now reduced to one: for or against Soviet rule.[8]

Could history have taken another route? What would have happened if Luxemburg (and Lenin) had adopted a different attitude to the Second International and organised an international split from it long before the Comintern was established? Of course history always gives options – we are not fatalists. But the parameters within which you can build a revolutionary organisation are quite specific. They depend on objective conditions.

Thus Alex quite rightly described the limitations of Marx’ and Engels’ concept of the party as lagging far behind that of Lenin. He writes of their ‘fatalist attitude which treated the formation of revolutionary class consciousness as the inevitable outcome of a process of natural development.’ [9] Alex explains that the defects in their position resulted from the period in which they lived and the nature of their protagonists. To have judged them outside of their current circumstances and those ‘transmitted from the past’ would have been un-Marxist – like condemning Newton for not knowing Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Yet Alex uses precisely the same word – ‘fatalism’ – that he employed to criticise Marx and Engels, to attack Luxemburg. But in her case the explanation is entirely in terms of personal idiosyncrasy. For Luxemburg or any other revolutionary to have gone far beyond these inherited ideas, it would have required a major objective break with the past traditions of workers’ struggle. That break occurred in eastern Europe when Marxism had to be adapted to its peculiar conditions. But in the west it came after the outbreak of war and with the international impact of the Russian revolution, not before.

Until then all leading Marxists claimed to share a common general theory, Lenin included. There were East European variations from the norm set by German social democracy, but these were held to be exceptions. In terms of theory of the party the Second International claimed to follow concepts developed by Marx up to the time of his death. That some of this theory lagged behind what was needed, became apparent only with the outbreak of the world war. Until that time the splitting of the mass movement internationally was not seen as an option for Marxists.

Were there people who argued for splits in the western parties? Indeed there were, but all of them proved to be hopeless sectarians and ultimately more of a liability to socialism than an aid. In Italy Bordiga’s tight-knit faction campaigned around the idea that all reforms are dangerous diversions and the best tactic was to abstain from elections. Bordiga captured the leadership of the Italian Communist Party at its formation, costing thousands of members. It took several years before Gramsci (who did not split before 1914) was able to remove him, by which time the rule of fascism made party-building exceedingly hard. In Britain a group broke from the Second International to form the Socialist Labour Party. This tiny organisation called on people to leave the existing unions; they picketed Tom Mann and demanded people join their patent brand of pure revolutionary union. In 1920 the healthy minority of SLP activists had to leave the dyed-in-the-wool sectarian majority behind to join the British Communist Party. (Incidentally the majority of the British CP came from the British Socialist Party which did not split with the Second International before the war). Daniel de Leon in the USA was another who split with the Second International. He too remained outside the mass struggles which were to develop around the IWW.

To split was easy, to avoid the fate of a sect was not. What was required was an understanding of a revolutionary strategy by which links with the mass movement could be kept alive and a principled party built around that strategy. That too did not drop from the sky but developed historically, reaching fruition on an international scale only with the Third (Communist) International. As Trotsky puts it:

The First International ... succeeded in formulating these [basic principles of revolutionary strategy] properly speaking, only theoretically ... The epoch of the Second International led to the method and view according to which ... the strategical task disappeared. Only the Third International re-established the rights of revolutionary communism ... Thanks to the invaluable experience of the first two Internationals, upon whose shoulders the Third rests ... [its strategy] attained a full-blooded militancy and the widest historical scope. [10]

The absence of such a strategy explains the shipwreck of every western pre-war split – Pannekoek’s Dutch Party, the originators of the KAPD in Germany, the Italian Bordigists and so on. Formed in the sectarian tradition these groups became a serious obstacle to the building of mass revolutionary Communist Parties in the 1920s and had to be fought against by such pamphlets as Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder.

Some comrades have argued that what Cliff did in the 1950s (the drawing together of a tiny core of revolutionaries out of which a party could ultimately be built) should have been done by revolutionaries at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Alas, the circumstances in which the Socialist Review Group (the precursor of the SWP) was built, were radically different from the circumstances faced eighty years ago. The Socialist Review Group was established as a tiny breakaway from a very small and weak Fourth International. A whole historical period had seen continued and catastrophic defeats of the working class – the rise of Stalin, defeat of the Chinese revolution, victory of Hitler, of Franco and so on. The task of the Socialist Review Group was to find a way through the labyrinth of Stalinism in the East and Social Democracy in the West. The task was to connect with the old traditions of the revolutionary movement, and in particular with the real spirit of the 1917 revolution. It was in these conditions that new concepts had to be introduced, such as orienting on the minority of workers ready to fight, recruiting ‘ones and twos’ etc. Though these had the achievements of Bolshevism and the early years of Comintern as their background they certainly could not be taken directly from the period of mass Second International parties nor mass Communist movements. In establishing the Socialist Review Group we did not have to split from a rising mass movement.

Alex Callinicos writes:

‘Luxemburg, increasingly aware as she was of the reformism of the SPD leadership, could have provided the nucleus of a revolutionary organisation capable of relating to the workers’ struggles which developed under the hammer of world war. It is easy to forget that What is to be Done? was preceded by two decades in which workers and students formed Marxist discussion circles and sought to relate to the sporadic bursts of class struggle which occurred.’ [11]

The Marxist circles in Russia preceded the organisation of a labour movement on any scale. It took place even before the first socialist newspaper was published. No revolutionary facing the one million members of the German SPD, especially when they believed at the time that this organisation was largely revolutionary, as Lenin, and to a lesser extent Luxemburg did, would have considered forming small Marxist circles. It was not on. Of course, if one abstracts from all the conditions including the limitation of views of all the participants, the number of options increases ad infinitum.

At any one time Marxists, based on their present situation and past experiences, will concentrate on the strategic links between their current circumstances and the ultimate goal of socialism. The focus inevitably changes. For Lenin in 1903 the key argument was party discipline and this led to a split with the Mensheviks. To have concentrated on this point in 1914 would have been insane sectarianism, for now the issue was revolutionary opposition to the War. Harping on about the war in 1919 would have been fatal when the prospect of Soviets seizing power was becoming visible. And so this became the key to splitting numbers of workers from the Second International to found new mass Communist Parties. In the 1950s the issue of whether Russia was socialist or not was important for orienting revolutionaries on workers’ self-activity in difficult conditions.

If we are to act as the memory of the class we must look at the actual development of history, the objective conditions in which people operated, their concrete activity, as well as the ideas they held. Only if we do all of these things can a realistic assessment be made. And it is a fact that it was only sometime after the outbreak of war and the successful October revolution that the Bolsheviks understood that the lessons of their party were crucial for revolutionaries on an international scale. Even this realisation was not uniform or immediate. As Trotsky put it:

It is unquestionable that in the era of the First Congress (1919) many of US reckoned ... that the spontaneous onset of the workers and in part of the peasant masses would overthrow the bourgeoisie in the near future. [12]

There is, thankfully, a difference between discussions about the past and the future. We can hypothesise as much as we like about what might have happened if such and such a course had been taken. The end result will not have changed one iota. But if we understand how and why history developed as it did, we can learn how to shape the future.

* * *


1. T. Cliff, Lenin, vol. 2 (London 1976), pp. 149–50

2. A. Callinicos, Party and Class before 1917, International Socialism 2 : 24, p. 80.

3. V. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 11, pp. 361–62.

4. V. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 18, pp. 170–72

5. V. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 19, pp. 94–95.

6. V. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 20, pp. 256–58.

7. Cf. V. Lenin’s article On Bolshevism in Collected Works, vol. 18, where the splits are explained in terms of different views of the development of the coming revolution against Tsarism as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘democratic’, etc.

8. V. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 30, pp. 420–21 (my emphasis).

9. A. Callinicos The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (London 1983), p. 153.

10. L. Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin (London 1974), pp. 57–58.

11. A Callinicos, Party and class ..., op. cit., p. 85.

12. L. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International (London 1974), vol. 2, p. 8.

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