Critical assessments

Rosa Luxemburg


Speeches to Stuttgart Congress’ [October 1898]

Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Rick Howard. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Speech of 4 October

Vollmar has bitterly reproached me with trying to preach to older veterans when I am still a young recruit to the movement. That is not the case. It would be superfluous, since I am convinced that the veterans stand firmly on the same ground as I. It is not at all a question of preaching to anyone, but of expressing a particular tactic clearly and unambiguously. I know that I still must earn my epaulets in the German movement; but I want to do it on the left wing, where people struggle against the enemy and not on the right wing, where people seek out compromises with the enemy. [Objections]

But when Vollmar counters my factual presentations with the argument, “You greenhorn, I could be your grandfather,” that proves to me that his logical arguments are on their last legs. [Laughter] In fact, in the course of his presentation he made a series of statements which, coming from a veteran, are confusing, to say the least.

[…] Vollmar trotted out the specter of Blanquism. Doesn’t he know the difference between Blanquism and Social Democracy? Doesn’t he know that for the Blanquists it is a handful of emissaries who are to take power in the name of the working class; for Social Democrats it is the working class itself? That is a difference that no one who is a veteran of the Social Democratic movement should forget. […]

Reform or Revolution [1900]

London: Militant Publications, 1986.

Chapter VI: Economic Development and Socialism

[…] Now if one wants to prove in this manner the impossibility of realising socialism one’s reasoning must rest on the theory according to which the result of social efforts is decided by the relation of the numerical material forces of the elements in the struggle, that is, by the factor of violence. In other words, Bernstein, who always thunders against Blanquism, himself falls into the grossest Blanquist error. There is this difference, however. To the Blanquists, who represented a socialist and revolutionary tendency, the possibility of the economic realisation of socialism appeared quite natural. On this possibility they built the chances of a violent revolution – even by a small minority. Bernstein, on the contrary, infers from the numerical insufficiency of a socialist majority, the impossibility of the economic realisation of socialism. The Social-Democracy does not, however, expect to attain its aim either as a result of the victorious violence of a minority or through the numerical superiority of a majority. It sees socialism come as a result of economic necessity – and the comprehension of that necessity – leading to the suppression of capitalism by the working masses. And this necessity manifests itself above all in the anarchy of capitalism. […]

Chapter VIII: Conquest of Political Power

The fate of democracy is bound up, we have seen, with the fate of the labour movement. But does the development of democracy render superfluous or impossible a proletarian revolution, that is, the conquest of political power by the workers?

Bernstein settles the question by weighing minutely the good and bad sides of social reform and social revolution. He does it almost in the same manner in which cinnamon or pepper is weighed out in a consumers’ co-operative store. He sees the legislative course of historic development as the action of “intelligence,” while the revolutionary course of historic development is for him the action of “feeling.” Reformist activity, he recognises as a slow method of historic progress, revolution as a rapid method of progress. In legislation he sees a methodical force; in revolution, a spontaneous force.

We have known for a long time that the petty-bourgeoisie reformer finds “good” and “bad” sides in everything. He nibbles a bit at all grasses. But the real course of events is little affected by such combination. The carefully gathered little pile of the “good sides” of all things possible collapses at the first filip of history. Historically, legislative reform and the revolutionary method function in accordance with influences that are much more profound than the consideration of the advantages or inconveniences of one method or another.

In the history of bourgeois society, legislative reform served to strengthen progressively the rising class till the latter was sufficiently strong to seize political power, to suppress the existing juridical system and to construct itself a new one. Bernstein, thundering against the conquest of political power as a theory of Blanquist violence, has the misfortune of labelling as a Blanquist error that which has always been the pivot and the motive force of human history. From the first appearance of class societies having the class struggle as the essential content of their history, the conquest of political power has been the aim of all rising classes. Here is the starting point and end of every historic period. This can be seen in the long struggle of the Latin peasantry against the financiers and nobility of ancient Rome, in the struggle of the medieval nobility against the bishops and in the struggle of the artisans against the nobles, in the cities of the Middle Ages. In modern times, we see it in the struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism.

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat. […]

In the first place, the seizure of political power by the proletariat, that is to say by a large popular class, is not produced artificially. It presupposes (with the exception of such cases as the Paris Commune, when the proletariat did not obtain power after a conscious struggle for its goal but fell into its hands like a good thing abandoned by everybody else) a definite degree of maturity of economic and political relations. Here we have the essential difference between coups d’etat along Blanqui’s conception which are accomplished by an “active minority” and burst out like pistol shot, always inopportunely, and the conquest of political power by a great conscious popular mass which can only be the product of the decomposition of bourgeois society and therefore bears in itself the economic and political legitimisation of its opportune appearance.

If, therefore, considered from the angle of political effect the conquest of political power by the working class cannot materialise itself “too early” then from the angle of conservation of power, the premature revolution, the thought of which keeps Bernstein awake, menaces us like a sword of Damocles. Against that neither prayers nor supplication, neither scares nor any amount of anguish, are of any avail. And this for two very simple reasons.

In the first place, it is impossible to imagine that a transformation as formidable as the passage from capitalist society to socialist society can be realised in one happy act. To consider that as possible is, again, to lend colour to conceptions that are clearly Blanquist. The socialist transformation supposes a long and stubborn struggle, in the course of which, it is quite probable the proletariat will be repulsed more than once so that for the first time, from the viewpoint of the final outcome of the struggle, it will have necessarily come to power “too early.”

In the second place, it will be impossible to avoid the “premature” conquest of State power by the proletariat precisely because these “premature” attacks of the proletariat constitute a factor and indeed a very important factor, creating the political conditions of the final victory. In the course of the political crisis accompanying its seizure of power, in the course of the long and stubborn struggles, the proletariat will acquire the degree of political maturity permitting it to obtain in time a definitive victory of the revolution. Thus these “premature” attacks of the proletariat against the State power are in themselves important historic factors helping to provoke and determine the point of the definite victory. Considered from this viewpoint, the idea of a “premature” conquest of political power by the labouring class appears to be a polemic absurdity derived from a mechanical conception of the development of society, and positing for the victory of the class struggle a point fixed outside and independent of the class struggle.

Since the proletariat is not in the position to seize power in any other way than “prematurely,” since the proletariat is absolutely obliged to seize power once or several times “too early” before it can maintain itself in power for good, the objection to the “premature” conquest of power is at bottom nothing more than a general opposition to the aspiration of the proletariat to possess itself of State power. Just as all roads lead to Rome so too do we logically arrive at the conclusion that the revisionist proposal to slight the final aim of the socialist movement is really a recommendation to renounce the socialist movement itself.

In Memory of the Proletariat Party’ [1903]

Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Rick Howard. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

[…] To be sure, the Narodnaya Volya was not a perfectly unitary structure: Western influences and the beginnings of Marxist theory can be noted in several areas. Yet the political program of this party is not easily fixed. Only after serious thought and a thorough analysis of the periodic publications of this party can one arrive at a clear answer to the question of how the political action of the Narodnaya Volya may really be understood. Did it aim at the overthrow of personal rule and the calling-in of the Zemsky Sobor in order immediately to enact transitional measures of a socialist nature so as to strengthen the system of communal property which would serve as a future basis for the socialist society? Or did it want first to establish the usual constitutional rights? In its own time, as we shall see, there were those who interpreted the goals of the Narodnava Volya in the latter manner. However, if one is willing to take a fitting label from the history of Western European socialism, then the term “Blanquist” would undoubtedly be the best description of the political strategy of the Narodnaya Volya. Blanquism is a strategy which is determined, on the one hand, to win the trust of the mass of the people, and on the other hand, to seize power by means of a conspiratorial party which then institutes only those parts of the socialist program “which are possible.” This judgement of the Narodnaya Volya is precisely that of the Russian Social Democrats, whose programmatic publications contain a wide and exhaustive critique of the historical Weltanschauung; and the economic theories of that party as well as of its political methods. […]


[…] If we want to underline the difference between the Weltanschauung of Social Democrats and so-called Blanquism, we must above all show that Blanquism did not possess its own theory in the same sense that Social Democracy does, that is, a theory of the development of society toward socialism. In any case, that is not a specific characteristic of just this splinter party of socialism, since the theory of Marx and Engels is the first and, we might add, until now the only successful attempt to found socialist tendencies on the scientific concept of the laws of historical development in general and of capitalist society in particular. The previous utopian theories of socialism, if one can indeed speak of theories, limit themselves essentially to justifying socialist efforts through an analysis of the failings of the existing society in comparison to the perfection and moral superiority of the socialist order.

Because Blanquism, like all of these socialist schools, supported its views by negative criticism of the bourgeois society and of private property, it represented only a sort of strategy for practical activity. In this respect it betrayed its lineage from the radical revolutionaries of the great French Revolution and represented an application of Jacobin tactics to socialist goals, the first attempt at which was the conspiracy of Babeuf. The basic idea of this strategy is the limitless belief in the ability of political rule to carry out, at any time, any economic or social change in the social organism considered good and useful.

To be sure, the theory of scientific socialism also sees in political rule a lever for socialist overthrow. Yet, in the conception of Mars and Engels, the role of political power in revolutionary times is that of an “agent” which simply puts into practice the results of the inner development of society and finds its political expression in the class struggle. According to the well-known Marxian analogy, in revolutionary times political power plays the role of a “midwife” who accelerates and eases the birth of the new society which was already alive within the old. It follows that essential social changes by means of political power are only to be achieved at a specific stage of social development. Political power as an instrument of overthrow can only function in the hands of a social class which is, in the particular historical moment, the agent of the revolution. The aptitude of this class for the long-term control of political power is the only legitimization for the correctness of the revolution.

Inasmuch as Blanquism does not recognize this theory, or rather does not even know this theory, it treats political power as a tool of social overthrow completely outside the context of social development and the class struggle in general. This tool stands ready to serve anyone who happens to control it at any time. From this standpoint, the only conditions for revolution are the will of a resolute group and a conspiracy, whose goal is the seizure of power at the most propitious moment.

“Blanqui,” says Engels in his well-known article in the Volkstaat in the year 1874, “is essentially a political revolutionary socialist only in feeling – sympathizing with the sufferings of the people. He has neither a socialist theory nor specific practical suggestions for social aid. In his political activity, he was basically a ‘man of action,’ of the belief that a small, well-organized minority attempting a revolutionary coup at the proper moment can, by virtue of a few initial successes, sweep the mass of the people with it and thus make a victorious revolution. Since Blanqui conceived every revolution as a blow struck by a small revolutionary minority, the necessity of a dictatorship after the success of the venture follows directly – the dictatorship, of course, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but rather of the small number of those who had ‘struck the revolutionary blow’ and who had been organized previously under the dictatorship of one or several others.”

We see that the strategy of the Blanquists is aimed directly at the carrying out of a social revolution without taking into account any sort of transitional period or developmental phase. Blanquism is a recipe for the making of revolution under any conditions and at any time; it ignores all concrete historical-social conditions.

Blanquism appeared as a universal strategy which could be applied to all countries with the same degree of success. But nowhere could the application of this method of action exercise so decisive an influence on the fate of socialism as under the conditions peculiar to czarism. The strategy of a sudden “leap” directly into social revolution had to influence fatally the political physiognomy of a party which worked within the framework of a state with an absolute-despotic form of government. Therefore, one can best follow the influence of Blanquism on the Polish socialists step by step in the gradual changing of their political views.

In September 1882, the official published program of the Proletariat Party had already distanced itself significantly both from the standpoint of the article by Waryński in Przedświt, No.3-4, and from the views of the Appeal to the Russian comrades. As we have already implied, this document sees the socialist future of Poland finding a foothold on the ground of scientific socialism and in the principles of the class struggle and historical materialism. The character of the actual program is, however, not so easily determined. Here there are three parallel sections, namely demands of the party “in the economic area,” “in the political area,” and “in the area of moral life.” […]

It is almost impossible to say to what category this program actually belongs. Upon close examination, two different interpretations are possible. The political demands listed here, with the exception of the first, which is not entirely clear, remind one of the usual minimal program of Social Democratic parties. But just this placing of these demands as coordinates of the demands for a socialist revolution awakens the suspicion that they were not related to the actual bourgeois social order. At the same time, it is doubtful whether they were supposed to deal with the socialist society, since they take so strongly into account the actual social order based on inequality of classes, sexes, and nationalities. Perhaps we have here not a minimal program but a program which is aimed at the transitional period after the seizure of power by the proletariat, and which has as its goal the kindling of the socialist transformation.

The pattern of a similar program, which also puts political-democratic demands and socialist reforms on the same level and which aims directly for the transitional phase after the revolution, is found, for example, in the demands of the “Communist Party of Germany” formulated by the central committee of the Communist League in Paris in 1848, and carrying, among others, the signatures of Marx and Engels.

One must nevertheless emphasize that the above program by the creators of the Communist Manifesto, contains no trace of Blanquist strategy as is claimed, for example, by Eduard Bernstein among others. In order to undertake the setting of prices, need only be aware that Marx and Engels formulated it under the fresh influence of the February Revolution in France and the outbreak of the March Resolution in Germany. It is well known that both overestimated the revolutionary momentum of the bourgeoisie and calculated that the European bourgeoisie, once they were swept into the whirl of the revolutionary movement, would – over either a short or a long period – run through the entire cycle of their power, that they would re-make the political relations of the capitalist countries “in their own image,” following which the surge of revolution should itself carry the petty bourgeoisie into their place and then finally the proletariat. In this way, the proletariat could follow directly on the heels of the bourgeois revolution in order to carry out its revolutionary task of the emancipation of all classes.

Today, rich in historical experience, we are in a position to recognize the utter optimism of this view. We know that the European bourgeoisie began their retreat immediately after the first revolutionary storm; and after they had suppressed their own revolution, they brought society onto its “normal” course, and once again under their control. We know also that the economic conditions in the Europe of 1848 were very distant from that degree of maturity which is necessary for a socialist revolution. Capitalism was not preparing itself for death but, on the contrary, for the true beginning of its rule. The phase which seemed to separate the communists of 1848 by only a few years from the dictatorship of the proletariat has broadened to an epoch that has lasted half a century and, even today, has not arrived at its conclusion.

The reason, however, which led Marx and Engels to set forth such a program of action based on the workers’ revolution was not the desire or hope of skipping the phase of bourgeois control but only an inaccurate estimation of the actual rate of social development under the influence of the revolution. Under the conditions of activity of the Proletariat Party, it is difficult to find analogous circumstances which could explain the program of the Polish party. If we want to attribute to its demands the character of a program appropriate to the transitional stage, then the only assumption which we can still make is that the Proletariat had already assumed a Blanquist position, at least to some degree.

It must, however, be noted that, outside of this confusion of final goals with immediate goals, the program of the Proletariat as a whole is saturated with the spirit of the Social Democratic philosophy. This is proved by the influence of the idea that the socialist revolution can only be completed by the working class, that only the mass struggle, the organization of the proletariat and its enlightenment can bring about the conditions necessary for the future society. The idea of agitation and of the organization of the masses is the leitmotif of the entire program and makes clear that the Party was then preparing itself for a long period of work on the basis of the daily interests of the proletariat.

A few sections of the program in which the Proletariat views political freedom as the prerequisite for organization and mass struggle also point in this direction. This evokes the formulations of Waryński in the Przedświt of the previous year. “We disapprove strongly,” we read in the program, “of the lack of freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, of assembly, of organization, and of the press – because all of this impedes the development of the workers’ consciousness. It awakens a religious-national hatred and fanaticism. It renders impossible the propaganda and mass organization which alone can lay the cornerstone for the future organization of the socialist society.” And somewhat further: “We will fight on against oppression both defensively and offensively. Defensively, insofar as we will allow no changes for the worse; offensively, insofar as we demand an improvement of the living conditions of the proletariat in the Russian state.”

If, in spite of this, we do not find a clear and categorical articulation of the struggle against czarism and for democratic freedoms in the program – a certain indecisiveness and wavering of political values predominates – still this program and the bases of its positive views show absolutely no Blanquism. The only fact which can be determined on the basis of this document is that the position of the Polish socialists had already lost much of that crystalline clarity which so characterized it in the documents of the Geneva group which we analyzed. Nevertheless, one must bear in mind that the program of 1882 is the work of the Warsaw group working in the homeland and that Waryński, after he had moved his activity into the Russian zone, probably had to depend much more on the comrades there, who stood under the influence of the Russians much more directly than did the Polish emigrants in Switzerland. But if the character of the official program of the Proletariat Party is most distinctive in its unclarity, still the further forms of its activity allow no more doubt about the growing influence of Blanquism. If we now look over the entire development of the Proletariat, we shall have to characterize the program of 1882 as a transitional phenomenon which, through its very lack of clarity, reflects the turning point between the Social Democratic and the Blanquist phases in the development of Polish socialism.


[…] [T]he ABC’s of socialism, namely Marxian socialism, teach that the socialist order is not some sort of poetic ideal society, thought out in advance, which may be reached by various paths in various more or less imaginative ways. Rather, socialism is simply the historical tendency of the class struggle of the proletariat in the capitalist society against the class rule of the bourgeoisie. Outside of this struggle between two completely discrete social classes, socialism cannot be realized ‑ neither through the propaganda of the most ingenious creator of a socialist utopia nor through peasant wars or revolutionary conspiracies. The Polish Socialists, as we saw, based their formal program on the basic principles and wanted to center their activities on the class struggle of the proletariat. Essentially however, they failed the ABC’s of socialism in the above-cited document as badly as the Russian Narodniki.

As soon as our revolutionaries took over the view of the Russian Narodniki that the Russian state was not tied to any social class, was “floating on air,” and that this state could therefore easily be overthrown by a conspiracy, they artificially separated their political struggle from the rest of their socialist activities. They separated the struggle with the government, which they viewed as the particular task of the conspirators’ party, from socialist agitation and the class struggle, which they saw as the task of the working class in Poland. This conception conforms to the categorical division of the tasks of the party into 1) “propaganda and social-revolutionary agitation” and 2) “struggle with the government at its center,” as stated in the cited resolutions.

We mentioned previously that it is a characteristic of Blanquism that it views political power as the means for a social transformation, independent of both social development and the class struggle. Although the Polish socialists did not accept this theory in its common form indeed, as we have already seen, they worked consciously and with great conviction from the standpoint that “the liberation of the working class can only be accomplished by the working class itself” – they did, in fact, assume a Blanquist stance when they unconsciously but factually accepted the views of the Narodniki about the Russian state. The hope for the possibility of carrying out a socialist overthrow directly, without going through the bourgeois-parliamentary phase, had to be the logical result of their position.

[…] The standard for the evaluation of political conditions is here no longer the indispensability of gradual organization of the masses, i.e., the requirements of the daily struggle, but rather the regard for the moment of “outbreak,” the immediate preparation of the social revolution.

This view of the situation of socialism in Poland coincides harmoniously with the Proletariat’s view of the situation in Russia and of the activity of the Narodnaya Volya. As a result of the terrorist attacks of the latter, “a high opinion of the strength of the revolutionaries is formed by the people so that they must finally begin to ask themselves whether it might not be better to align themselves with the revolutionaries, whether these would not return the lands, forests, and pastures to the people. It is up to the revolutionaries to say ‘yes’ to the people, and the fate of the revolution is decided.”

“Indeed,” one must remark with Engels, “an easier and more pleasant revolution could not be imagined.” No longer is there discussion about the preparatory work of enlightenment and organization of the working class. On the contrary, one postulates that the mass of the people have an inherent inclination toward change in the social order. From this viewpoint, all the partial changes within the existing system of government, such as democratization of the state, naturally appear to be insignificant trivialities and a waste of time. In the third number of October 20, 1883, we see the following declaration in the article “We and the Bourgeoisie”:

The masses [of working people] recognize their inability to carry out a coup – they are looking for men whom they can trust, to whom they can entrust their leadership. Until then, they remain silent. Who if not us could and should win this trust! However, in order to win it, we must show by our deeds that we are the enemies of their tyrants, that we do not shrink from the battle which we are today carrying on in their behalf, that we are trying to give to the masses that which belongs to them, and that only therefore do we reject that game of the bourgeois parliaments in which an unenlightened majority gives the decision about the overthrow into the hands of its enemies. Thus, it seems to us that an energetic provisional government – made up solely of socialists – is the best guarantee of as complete a transfer of property to the working class as is possible.

That is a classic statement of belief in the Blanquist spirit – the contrasting of a “provisional government of socialists” with the “game of the bourgeois parliaments”in which the political program in its actual significance is fully ignored.

In the same vein, the manifesto of the French Blanquists, published in 1874 in London, announces, “We are communists because we want to arrive at our goals without having to stop at intermediate stages, at compromises, which only delay victory and prolong slavery …”

In his critique of this manifesto (which bore the signatures of thirty-three Blanquists), Friedrich Engels stated,

The German communists are communists because they see and strive toward their final goal through all of those intermediate stages and compromises which are created not by themselves, but by historical development. That final goal is the abolition of classes and the construction of a society in which private ownership of land and the means of production no longer exist. “These thirty-three are communists because they imagine that if they only have the good will to skip over all the, intermediate stages and compromises, they can. And if, as is of course certain, things “break loose” tomorrow and they come to power, why then by the day after tomorrow “communism will have been established.” If that is not immediately possible, then they are not communists. Such childish naïveté, citing impatience as a theoretically convincing argument!

The fourth number of Proletariat shows certain variations with respect to a return to Social Democratic views. In the articles We and the Government, we read

However, until the final phase of struggle our movement will have to pass through various stages. One of the maw tasks of our preparatory work is the struggle against the attacks of governments which, representing the interests of the bourgeoisie, persecute us, i.e., we must defend political freedom from this base conspiracy against the desires of the people. Yet political freedom has not protected the people from oppression: we value it for another reason: In order to be successful, our activity needs daylight in which it can develop wide and free. Only when forced to does it become a secret conspiracy. Under conditions of political freedom, an effect on the masses is achieved more easily, their consciousness is more quickly awakened, they gather more quickly around the banner of the social idea, and their organization becomes possible to a very high degree. The struggle with the political difficulties set before us by governments must be especially tenacious where political oppression rules in its primal and most shameless form, where complete arbitrariness governs, where the most primitive human rights are totally ignored. Here, the overthrow of the government must be one of the main points of the socialist program of action.

On the basis of the above quotation, it could appear that the Proletariat Party did understand the necessity of winning political freedoms before the “outbreak” in order to make agitation and organization possible in greater measure. But here too the strongly one-sided and flat, formalistic evaluation of political freedoms merely as technical aids for the activities of the socialists is obvious. The objective, historical side of the parliamentary-bourgeois forms of government as an indispensable stage in the development of the capitalist society is totally ignored. Since parliamentary democracy is viewed only as an external means of facilitating preparations for the “outbreak.” the logical conclusion that the struggle for the realization of democratic forms is a necessary and primary task of the working class is not needed. On the contrary, the view remains that the winning of these freedoms is, to be sure, a pleasant development which cannot be rejected, but which, if necessary, call be foregone.

These are essentially the conclusions which the Proletariat draws in the second part of the article “We and the government”, which appeared in the fifth and last number of its Warsaw magazine:

Should the government – having been frightened by the progress of our revolutionary work – approach our more or less patriotic bourgeoisie and make a few political-national concessions to it in order to bring it into a common struggle against us – well, please do. We will certainly not protest against such concessions. But we will make an effort to use all of that which was done for the bourgeoisie against it and the government.

An even clearer representation of this pure Blanquist conception of political freedoms appears in the closing section of the same article, where conclusions are drawn from the two fundamental articles:

“We conclude: The present state has a single basic significance for us. Since the state ties its existence closely to the maintenance of the existing economic system, it defends the privileged classes and oppresses and persecutes the parties which strive for social liberation. Destroying the governmental apparatus simply means toppling the barrier which stands between us and our goal …”

The discussion here is no longer about despotic government but about the “present state.” Thus, the peculiarly Russian form of government is identified with the institution of the class state as such. Therefore, the task of the socialist party is not primarily the progressive reform of governmental institutions but rather the “destruction of the governmental apparatus,” i.e., the direct overthrow of the government which, since it is based on class rule, is a fortress of the bourgeois system of domination.

Finally, in 1884, after Ludwik Waryński had been arrested and had disappeared from the field of battle, the development in political thought criticized here appears in full regalia in the most important document of the Party’s history, the formal agreement with the Narodnaya Volya. This contract which, as usual, officially recognizes the connections between the Polish and Russian socialist movements only long after they had actually been established, is an excellent counterpart to the earlier Appeal to the Russian Comrades. It shows the long path of political change which Polish socialism covered in the short period between the end of 1881 and the beginning of 1884.

In the report of the central committee of the Proletariat to the executive committee of the Narodnaya Volya, we find the declaration that

the fighting units [of the Proletariat Party] which have been trained and organized for battle should be deployed at the proper moment as reinforcements to aid in the overthrow of the existing government and the seizure of power by the central committee. The central committee itself will be based upon the masses, since it will be the only true representative of their interests, and will institute a series of economic and political reforms through which the existing concepts of property will be forever discredited. The central committee will carry out that part of the socialist program whose realization at the moment of overthrow is possible.

Here the “overthrow of the existing government” (pravitelstvo), i.e., czarism, is obviously conceived as the direct prelude to social revolution. The struggle against despotism completely loses its character as a daily struggle on the soil of bourgeois social order. The distance between the minimal demands and the final goal, between the political program and the program of socialist overthrow, disappears and the daily activity becomes mere speculation about the impending “outbreak” which will immediately usher in the social transformation.

In accord with this, the central committee discusses the details of the “outbreak,” promises not to begin the “overthrow of the state” (gosudarstvjennyi perevorod) until the signal from the executive committee of the Narodnaya Volya, reserves for itself independence “in its creative work” after the overthrow, etc.

Enough. We have here, despite the views on class struggle, mass action, etc., which are stressed in other parts of the document, a typical Blanquist program. Thus, this document,which crowns the practical realization of that idea which was expressed in the Appeal to the Russian Comrades, is also the end point of a series of gradual changes within Polish socialism.

‘Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy’ [1904]

Revolutionary Socialist Organization. N.p.: Integer, 1934.

[…] The principal difficulty faced by socialist activity in Russia results from the fact that in that country the domination of the bourgeoisie is veiled by absolutist force. This gives socialist propaganda an abstract character, while immediate political agitation takes on a democratic-revolutionary guise.

Bismarck’s antisocialist laws put our movement out of constitutional bounds in a highly developed bourgeois society, where class antagonisms had already reached their full bloom in parliamentary contests. (Here, by the way, lay the absurdity of Bismarck’s scheme). The situation is quite different in Russia. The problem there is how to create a Social Democratic movement at a time when the state is not yet in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

The circumstance has an influence on agitation, on the manner of transplanting socialist doctrine to Russian soil. It also bears in a peculiar and direct way on the question of party organization.

Under ordinary conditions – that is, where the political domination of the bourgeoisie has preceded the socialist movement – the bourgeoisie itself instills in the working class the rudiments of political solidarity. At this stage, declares the Communist Manifesto, the unification of the workers is not yet the result of their own aspiration to unity but comes as a result of the activity of the bourgeoisie, “which, in order to attain its own political ends, is compelled to set the proletariat in motion …”

In Russia, however, the Social Democracy must make up by its own efforts an entire historic period. It must lead the Russian proletarians from their present “atomized” condition, which prolongs the autocratic regime, to a class organization that would help them to become aware of their historic objectives and prepare them to struggle to achieve those objectives.

The Russian socialists are obliged to undertake the building of such an organization without the benefit of the formal guarantees commonly found under a bourgeois-democratic setup. They do not dispose of the political raw material that in other countries is supplied by bourgeois society itself. Like God Almighty they must have this organization arise out of the void, so to speak.

How to effect a transition from the type of organization characteristic of the preparatory stage of the socialist movement – usually featured by disconnected local groups and clubs, with propaganda as a principal activity – to the unity of a large, national body, suitable for concerted political action over the entire vast territory ruled by the Russian state? That is the specific problem which the Russian Social Democracy has mulled over for some time.

Autonomy and isolation are the most pronounced characteristics of the old organizational type. It is, therefore, understandable why the slogan of persons who want to see an inclusive national organization should be “Centralism!”

At the Party Congress, it became evident that the term “centralism” does not completely cover the question of organization for the Russian Social Democracy. Once again we have learned that no rigid formula can furnish the solution of any problem in the social movement. […]

Looking at the matter from the angle of the formal tasks of the Social Democracy, in its capacity as a party of class struggle, it appears at first that the power and energy of the party are directly dependent on the possibility of centralizing the party. However, these formal tasks apply to all active parties. In the case of the Social Democracy, they are less important than is the influence of historic conditions.

The Social Democratic movement is the first in the history of class societies which reckons, in all its phases and through its entire course, on the organization and the direct, independent action of the masses.

Because of this, the Social Democracy creates an organizational type that is entirely different from those common to earlier revolutionary movements, such as those of the Jacobins and the adherents of Blanqui.

Lenin seems to slight this fact when he presents in his book (page 140) the opinion that the revolutionary Social Democrat is nothing else than a “Jacobin indissolubly joined to the organization of the proletariat, which has become conscious of its class interests.”

For Lenin, the difference between the Social Democracy and Blanquism is reduced to the observation that in place of a handful of conspirators we have a class-conscious proletariat. He forgets that this difference implies a complete revision of our ideas on organization and, therefore, an entirely different conception of centralism and the relations existing between the party and the struggle itself.

Blanquism did not count on the direct action of the working class. It, therefore, did not need to organize the people for the revolution. The people were expected to play their part only at the moment of revolution. Preparation for the revolution concerned only the little group of revolutionists armed for the coup. Indeed, to assure the success of the revolutionary conspiracy, it was considered wiser to keep the mass at some distance from the conspirators. Such a relationship could be conceived by the Blanquists only because there was no close contact between the conspiratorial activity of their organization and the daily struggle of the popular masses.

The tactics and concrete tasks of the Blanquist revolutionists had little connection with the elementary class struggle. They were freely improvised. They could, therefore, be decided on in advance and took the form of a ready-made plan. In consequence of this, ordinary members of the organization became simple executive organs, carrying out the orders of a will fixed beforehand, and outside of their particular sphere of activity. They became the instruments of a Central Committee. Here we have the second peculiarity of conspiratorial centralism – the absolute and blind submission of the party sections to the will of the center, and the extension of this authority to all parts of the organization.

However, Social Democratic activity is carried on under radically different conditions. It arises historically out of the elementary class struggle. It spreads and develops in accordance with the following dialectical contradiction. The proletarian army is recruited and becomes aware of its objectives in the course of the struggle itself. The activity of the party organization, the growth of the proletarians’ awareness of the objectives of the struggle and the struggle itself, are not different things separated chronologically and mechanically. They are only different aspects of the same struggle, there do not exist for the Social Democracy detailed sets of tactics which a Central Committee can teach the party membership in the same way as troops are instructed in their training camps. Furthermore, the range of influence of the socialist party is constantly fluctuating with the ups and downs of the struggle in the course of which the organization is created and grows.

For this reason Social Democratic centralism cannot be based on the mechanical subordination and blind obedience of the party membership to the leading party center. For this reason, the Social Democratic movement cannot allow the erection of an air-tight partition between the class-conscious nucleus of the proletariat already in the party and its immediate popular environment, the nonparty sections of the proletariat.

Now the two principles on which Lenin’s centralism rests are precisely these:

  1. The blind subordination, in the smallest detail, of all party organs to the party center which alone thinks, guides, and decides for all.
  2. The rigorous separation of the organized nucleus of revolutionaries from its social-revolutionary surroundings.

Such centralism is a mechanical transposition of the organizational principles of Blanquism into the mass movement of the socialist working class.

In accordance with this view, Lenin defines his “revolutionary Social Democrat” as a “Jacobin joined to the organization of the proletariat, which has become conscious of its class interests.”

The fact is that the Social Democracy is not joined to the organization of the proletariat. It is itself the proletariat. And because of this, Social Democratic centralism is essentially different from Blanquist centralism. It can only be the concentrated will of the individuals and groups representative of the working class. It is, so to speak, the “self-centralism” of the advanced sectors of the proletariat. It is the rule of the majority within its own party. […]

‘Blanquism and Social Democracy’ [1906]

Weekly Worker 753 (22 January 2009).

Comrade Plekhanov has published an exhaustive article in the Courrier entitled, How far does the right go?, in which he accuses the Bolsheviks of Blanquism. […]

In order to define Blanquism comrade Plekhanov quotes Engels on Blanqui – a French revolutionary of the 1840s, whose name is used to describe the tendency.

Engels says:

“In his political activity he was mainly a ‘man of action’, believing that a small and well organised minority, who would attempt a political stroke of force at the opportune moment, could carry the mass of the people with them by a few successes at the start and thus make a victorious revolution …

“From Blanqui’s assumption, that any revolution may be made by the outbreak of a small revolutionary minority, follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship after the success of the venture. This is, of course, a dictatorship, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organised under the dictatorship of one or several individuals” (F. Engels, The programme of the Blanquist fugitives from the Commune, 1873).

Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s comrade in arms, is undoubtedly a great authority, but whether this characteristic of Blanqui is perfectly just can still be discussed. For in 1848 Blanqui did not foresee his club forming a “small minority” at all; on the contrary, in a period of powerful revolutionary upsurge, he was certain that, upon his call, the entire working people – if not in France, then at least in Paris – would rise up to fight the ignominious and criminal policies of the bourgeois government, which was trying to “steal victory from the people”.

Nevertheless, this is not the main question. What concerns us is whether, as comrade Plekhanov strives to demonstrate, Engels’ description of Blanqui can be applied to the Bolsheviks (whom comrade Plekhanov labels the “minority” moreover, because they found themselves in a minority at the reunification congress).

He says exactly: “This whole description applies completely to our present minority.” And he justifies this proposition on the following basis:

“The relationship of the Blanquists with the popular masses was utopian in the sense that they had not understood the meaning of the revolutionary autonomy of the masses. According to their schemes, only the conspirators were active properly speaking, while the masses were content to support them, led by a well organised minority.”

And comrade Plekhanov affirms that this is “Blanquism’s original sin”, to which the Russian Bolshevik comrades (we prefer to keep to this usual denomination) succumbed. In our opinion this reproach has not been substantiated by comrade Plekhanov. For the comparison with the members of Narodnaya Volya, who were effectively Blanquists, proves nothing, and the malicious remark that Zhelyabov, the hero and leader of Narodnaya Volya, was gifted with a sharper political instinct than the Bolshevik leader, Lenin, is in too bad taste to ponder over. For the rest, as we have said, it is not for us to go guns blazing to defend the Bolsheviks and comrade Lenin: they have not yet been flummoxed by anybody. What is important is to go to the heart of the question and ask: in the current Russian revolution is Blanquism possible? If such a tendency could only exist, could it exert some sort of influence?

We think that anyone with just a little familiarity with the present revolution, anyone who has had some direct contact with it, would answer this question in the negative. The difference between the situation in France in 1848 and the current situation in the Russian empire lies precisely in the fact that the relationship between the organised minority – that is, the proletarian party – and the masses is fundamentally different. In 1848, revolutionaries, in as much as they were socialists, made desperate efforts to bring socialist ideas to the masses, in order to prevent them supporting the hollow ideas of bourgeois liberalism. That socialism was precisely utopian and petty bourgeois.

Today, in Russia, things are rather different. Neither your old, rancid pedejca nor the Cadet organisation, Russia’s constitutional tsarists, nor any other ‘progressive’ national bourgeois party has been able to win the broad working masses. Today those masses have gathered beneath the banner of socialism: when the revolution exploded, they rallied of their own initiative, almost spontaneously, to the red flag. And this is the best recommendation for our party. We are not going to hide the fact that in 1903 we were still only a handful and in terms of a party, in the strictest sense of the word, in terms of effectively organised comrades, we were at most several hundred; and when we came out to demonstrate only a small group of workers would join us. Today we are a party of tens of thousands.

Why the difference? Is it because we have in our party inspired leaders? Perhaps because we are so well known conspirators? Not at all. None of our leaders – that is, none of those whom the party has entrusted with responsibility – would wish to risk ridicule by inviting a comparison with Blanqui, that lion of past revolution. Few of our militants can match the old conspirators of the Blanquist club when it comes to personal radiance and capacity to organise.

How to explain our success and the failure of the Blanquists? Quite simply by the fact that the famous ‘masses’ are no longer the same. Today they are made up of working class troops fighting tsarism, of men made socialist by life itself, of men who have been nurtured on hate for the established order, of men taught by necessity to think in Marxist terms. That is the difference. It is neither the leaders nor even the ideas they produce, but the social and economic conditions which rule out a common class fight of the proletariat and bourgeoisie.

Thus, since the masses are different, since the proletariat is different, one cannot speak today of conspiratorial, Blanquist tactics. Blanqui and his heroic comrades made superhuman efforts to lead the masses towards class struggle; they did not succeed at all, because they were faced with workers who had not yet broken with the system of corporations, who were still immersed in petty bourgeois ideology.

We social democrats have a much simpler and easier task: today we need only work to direct the class struggle, which has been inflamed with inexorable necessity. The Blanquists tried to drag the masses behind them, whereas we social democrats are today pushed by the masses. The difference is great – as great as that between a sailor who strives to realign the current to his boat and one whose task is to hold the line of a boat carried by the current. The first will never have enough power and will fail in his goal, while the second must only ensure that the boat does not deviate from its route, is not broken on a reef or beached on a sandbank.

In this sense comrade Plekhanov ought not to worry about the “revolutionary autonomy of the masses”. Such autonomy exists – nothing will hold it back and all the bookish sermons on its necessity (please excuse this expression, but we are unable to think of another) will only cause those who work with, and at the heart of, the masses to smile.

We would dispute comrade Plekhanov’s reproach to the Russian comrades of the current “majority” that they have committed Blanquist errors during the revolution. It is possible that there were hints of them in the organisational draft that comrade Lenin drew up in 1902, but that belongs to the past – a distant past, since today life is proceeding at a dizzying speed. These errors have been corrected by life itself and there is no danger they might recur. And we should not be afraid of the ghost of Blanquism, for it cannot be resuscitated at this time.

On the contrary, there is a danger that comrade Plekhanov and the partisans of the “minority” who fear Blanquism so much will go to the opposite extreme and ground the boat on a sandbank. We see this opposite extreme in the fact that these comrades fear above all remaining in a minority and are counting on the masses outside the proletariat. Hence the calculation favouring participation in the duma; hence the false rallying cries in the central committee directives to support the gentlemen of the Cadets, the attempt to revive the slogan, “Down with the bureaucratic ministry!” and other similar errors.

There is no danger that the boat will remain grounded on the sandbank: the tumultuous events of the revolution will soon carry forward the proletarian boat. But it would be a pity if we became diverted by such errors, if only for an instant.

In the same way, the notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” has taken on a different meaning from before. Friedrich Engels correctly stresses that the Blanquists were not dreaming of a dictatorship of “the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution”. Today things are quite different. It is not an organisation of conspirators who “made the revolution”, who can contemplate their dictatorship. Even the Narodnaya Volya people and those who claim to be their heirs, the Socialist Revolutionaries of Russia, have long ceased to dream of such a thing.

If today the Bolshevik comrades speak of the dictatorship of the proletariat, they have never given it the old Blanquist meaning; neither have they ever made the mistake of Narodnaya Volya, which dreamt of “taking power for itself” (zachvat vlasti). On the contrary, they have affirmed that the present revolution will succeed when the proletariat – all the revolutionary class – takes possession of the state machine. The proletariat, as the most revolutionary element, will perhaps assume the role of liquidator of the old regime by “taking power for itself” in order to defeat counterrevolution and prevent the revolution being led astray by a bourgeoisie that is reactionary in its very nature. No revolution can succeed other than by the dictatorship of one class, and all the signs are that the proletariat can become this liquidator at the present time.

Clearly no social democrat falls for the illusion of the proletariat being able to maintain itself in power. If it could, it would lead to the domination of its working class ideas and it would realise socialism. But it is not strong enough at this time, for the proletariat, in the strictest sense of the word, constitutes a minority in the Russian empire. The achievement of socialism by a minority is unconditionally excluded, since the very idea of socialism excludes the domination of a minority. So, on the day of the political victory of the proletariat over tsarism, the majority will claim the power which the former has conquered.

Concretely, after the fall of tsarism, power will pass into the hands of the most revolutionary part of society, the proletariat, because the proletariat will take possession of all posts and keep watch over them until power is placed in the hands of those legally called upon to hold it – in the hands of the new government, which the Constituent [Assembly], as the legislative organ elected by the whole population, is alone able to determine. Now, it is a simple fact that it is not the proletariat that constitutes a majority in society, but the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry, and that, as a consequence, it will not be the social democrats who form a majority in the Constituent, but the democratic peasants and petty bourgeois. We may lament this fact, but we will not be able to change it.

Broadly speaking, this is the situation as the Bolsheviks understand it, and all social democratic organisations and parties outside Russia itself share this vision. Where Blanquism fits into it is difficult to imagine.

To justify his claim, if only in appearance, comrade Plekhanov is obliged to take the words of Lenin and his comrades out of context. If, for our part, we wished to do the same, we would be able to demonstrate that the “Mensheviks” have recently acted like Blanquists, beginning with comrade Parvus and ending with comrade … Plekhanov! But that would be to play a sterile scholastic game. Comrade Plekhanov’s article is bitter in tone – it is full of bitterness – which is a bad thing: “When Jupiter becomes incensed, it is because Jupiter is wrong.”

It is high time to finish with such scholasticism and all this hullabaloo to identify who is a “Blanquist” and who is an “orthodox Marxist”. Rather we need to know if the tactic recommended by comrade Plekhanov and his Menshevik comrades, which aims to work through the duma as far as possible, is correct now; or, on the contrary, if the tactic we are applying, just like the Bolshevik comrades, is correct – the tactic based on the principle that the centre of gravity is situated outside the duma, in the active appearance of the popular revolutionary masses.

The Menshevik comrades have not yet been able to persuade anyone of the correctness of their views – and no-one will be persuaded any the more when they attach the Blanquist label to their opponents.