In the months leading up to World War I, Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin were not quarrelling over the national question, but something different altogether. What their struggle really entailed can be seen in Lenin’s third charge against her, that “she was mistaken in July 1914, when, together with Plekhanov, Vandervelde, Kautsky and others, she advocated unity between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks”. Aside from the claim that Luxemburg was mistaken, Lenin was correct here. However, he was wrong to say that the dispute first emerged in July 1914. In fact, it had raged since 1906, and escalated between 1910 and 1913.
Jörn Schütrumpf headed the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Rosa Luxemburg research until his retirement in 2022.
Rosa Luxemburg officially and publicly broke with Lenin in the midst of this dispute. She announced the break in Polish, however, and it thus went largely unnoticed in Western Europe. That said, even had the news of their disagreement reached the West, it probably would not have interested anyone, as the Left in Western Europe had grown tired of the quarrels in Russian Social Democracy, which, since 1906, also included Luxemburg’s party, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL). Many viewed the RSDLP as a group of immature Russians unable to achieve anything beyond accusing each other of incompetence and treason.
Lenin was certainly no stranger in Western Europe before 1917, either. Yet unlike Leon Trotsky, for instance, he was not exactly a magnet for expressions of sympathy, but somebody who, when it came to disagreements with others, would often “make it personal”, resorting to insults and rants to cover up his lack of reflection. With the possible exception of Clara Zetkin, the Secretary of the International Socialist Women’s Movement, those who knew him personally did not find much, if anything, of interest in him.
Published here in English for the first time with a foreword and annotations from Jörn Schütrumpf, “The Breakdown of Unity in the RSDLP”, an unsigned article by Rosa Luxemburg dated July 1912, was only the second time the SDKPiL publicly discussed the Bolsheviks and Lenin in particular. The leaders of the SDKPiL had by and large refrained from criticizing the Bolsheviks, as they viewed them as natural, albeit unpredictable, allies. By making this nearly forgotten text available to an international audience, we hope to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of Luxemburg’s politics, her oftentimes fraught relationship with her Russian comrades, and the global networks that made up the classical socialist movement.
Translated by Ben Lewis and Maciej Zurowski.