The Materialist Constitutional Thought of Rosa Luxemburg (Part Two) — Camila Vergara

[This is the second in a series of three posts on materialist constitutionalism by Camila Vergara. The first post is available here.]

Democratic Rights and Workers’ Councils 

Luxemburg was a creative thinker who did not “profess” any particular ideological position other than the evidence she discovered from the historical-materialist method she learned from Marx. Her sharp and prescient critique in 1904 of Lenin’s “ultra-centralist” strategy, which she developed further in her 1918 analysis of the Russian Revolution, was unpopular and relegated her to the margins of socialist thought. [1] She accused Lenin’s revolutionary party of strengthening “the conservatism that springs inevitably” from social democratic parties, which tend to defend what they have gained against “further innovation at a greater scale”. [2] She saw in Lenin’s centralism not the creative, constituent energy of the masses, but the “sterile spirit of the night-watchman state”. [3] She argued that the party’s attempt to control the movement, to “oversee” the revolution instead of fostering it, would end up stifling it. According to Luxemburg, Lenin’s desire to control the party was concerned “with narrowing and not with broadening, with tying the movement up and not with drawing it together“. [4]

Fourteen years later, in her analysis of the Russian Revolution, Luxemburg denounced the progression of the centralist strategy and the “cool contempt” the revolutionary government had for democratic rights such as universal suffrage, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. [5] She argued that it was necessary for these rights not only to be formally respected, but also to be anchored in material conditions and exercised through political action. Her analysis of democratic rights was not informed by liberalism [6], but rather by the conclusion she drew from her critical approach to women’s political rights–that formal equal rights “conform quite harmoniously with the bourgeois state”. [7] In her view, women’s political rights, because they do not “encroach upon the domination of capital”, do not ensure women’s emancipation from the exploitation of domestic labour, not to mention the overthrowing of the state. [8] This coexistence of formal rights and domination in the case of women came to reinforce what she had learned from Marx’s analysis of individual rights–that formal rights are not only an inherently partial form of freedom but that they also contribute to the endurance of relations of domination that have been abolished legally. [9] For rights to be emancipatory, she argued, they need to be grounded in material conditions and relations of power. Just as according the right to vote to women does not ensure their emancipation from domestic domination, so too does according formal rights to the masses, absent collective political power, fail to contribute to the emancipation of the proletariat from the capitalist state, permitting the continuation of relations of domination while giving the appearance of liberty. 

For Luxemburg, political activity was crucial for developing class consciousness among the proletariat. She argued that the active exercise of democratic rights is for the proletariat indispensable not only because it renders the “conquest of power both necessary and possible” [10], but, more importantly, “because only through the exercise of its democratic rights, in the struggle for democracy, can the proletariat become aware of its class interests and its historic task”. [11] This does not mean that the exercise of democratic rights should be the final goal of the revolution. Even if Luxemburg valued parliamentary activity and trade unionism due to the class awareness they promote, and insofar as they are means for advancing workers’ interests, she saw grave danger in trading means for ends, especially in conceiving the party as the main goal of socialist politics. [12] When the means are “separated from the movement” and “made an end in themselves, then such activity not only does not lead to the final goal of socialism but moves in a precisely opposite direction”. [13] Even if the party appears as an indispensable means for conquering the state, neither the conquest of the bourgeois state nor the maintenance of the party structure are connected to the final goal of achieving socialist society, which can be built only from the ground up, by the workers themselves. Consequently, actions by the party to control the movement by undermining democratic rights are ultimately self-defeating.

To be sure, every democratic institution has its limits and shortcomings, things which it doubtless shares with all other human institutions. But the remedy which Trotsky and Lenin have found, the elimination of democracy as such, is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure; for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come the correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammelled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people. [14]

Luxemburg argued that the “deprivation” of democratic rights under a socialist government is especially damaging for the revolution because it undermines the collective power of the proletariat and therefore the power to ameliorate institutional weaknesses of existing political and economic systems. She also saw in the anti-democratic tendencies of centralism the revolutionary party’s contempt for local proletarian organizations. The Bolsheviks, she suggested, initially viewed the soviets–the incipient revolutionary popular structures that emerged in Russia–with suspicion, designating them “reactionary” because the majority of council members were peasants. [15] Only the “correct” organs of the workers were understood to be valid interlocutors, and even those were deprived of the necessary liberties to operate autonomously. By suppressing grassroots politics, the revolutionary government occupying the oligarchic state machinery had therefore established not a dictatorship of the proletariat (the soviets) but a dictatorship of the selected few (party leaders), which the masses were then forced to support.

[W]ith the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously–at bottom, then, a clique affair–a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense. [16]

In Germany the incipient council system also came under attack from the ruling socialist party. In 1916, in order to push back against the debasement of worker power and continue to oppose the war through revolutionary methods, Luxemburg founded the Spartacus League together with Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin, and Franz Mehring. [17] In a series of speeches published in the League’s newspaper, Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), in the two months after she was released from jail and shot by the government-sponsored Freikorps [18], Luxemburg denounced “the systematic destruction of the system of workers’ and soldiers’ councils” and called for reinvigorating the council system by spreading its mode of organization to the peasantry. [19] For Luxemburg, because the revolution targeted “the foundation and base of the social constitution”, it needed to “work from beneath”, and the duty of the revolutionary party was to support councils as part of a revolutionary democratic constitution. [20] The path of the revolution, therefore, was not centralization, but the strengthening and spreading of the council system.

All power in the hands of the working masses, in the hands of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, protection of the work of revolution against its lurking enemies–this is the guiding principle of all measures to be taken by the revolutionary government. [21]

For Luxemburg, it was imperative to dispel the illusion that in order to achieve socialism it is only “necessary to overthrow the old government, to set up a socialist government at the head of affairs, and then to inaugurate socialism by decree”. [22] The proletarian masses needed to realize that they could not be liberated from the top, and that they needed to emancipate themselves through political action. The “essence of socialist society”, she declared, is that “the great labouring mass ceases to be a dominated mass”–a collection of “dead machines assigned their place in production by capital”–and workers become agents giving “conscious, free, and autonomous direction” to life in common. [23] This requires a transformation of the proletariat. Because “one cannot realize socialism with lazy, frivolous, egoistic, thoughtless and indifferent human beings”, individual men and women need to cultivate “inner self-discipline, intellectual maturity, moral ardor, a sense of dignity and responsibility”–what Luxemburg deemed “a complete inner birth of the proletarian”. [24]

[1] At the 1925 Comintern, her political ideas were demonized as part of the emergent “Bolshevization” of socialism. See J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, vol. 2 (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 533, 800–1, 805–6; Norman Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg (London: Verso, 2015), 28–29.

[2] Luxemburg, “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy” [1904], in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, ed. Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 248, at 255; also available (in different translation) at

[3] Luxemburg, “Organizational Questions”, 256.

[4] Luxemburg, “Organizational Questions”, 256 (original emphases).

[5] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution” [1918], in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 281, at 294; also available (in different translation) at

[6] For a liberal interpretation of Luxemburg see Ernst Vollrath, “Rosa Luxemburg’s Theory of Revolution”, 40 (1973) Social Research 83. For a refutation of this liberal interpretation see Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, ch. 4.

[7] Luxemburg, “The Proletarian Woman” [1914], in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 242, at 244.

[8] Luxemburg, “The Proletarian Woman”, 244.

[9] Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” [1843], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1975) 146; also available (in different translation) at

[10] Rosa Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution” [1900], in The Essential Rosa Luxemburg: Reform or Revolution & the Mass Strike, ed. Helen Scott (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 66, at 93; also available (in different translation) at

[11] Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution”, 93.

[12] Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution”, 67.

[13] Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution”, 67.

[14] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution”, 302.

[15] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution”, 304.

[16] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution”, 307.

[17] Spartacus led the largest slave rebellion in the Roman Republic (73 BC).

[18] Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson, “Introduction”, in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 7, at 29.

[19] Rosa Luxemburg, “Our Program and the Political Situation” [1918], in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 357, at 371; also available (in different translation) at

[20] Luxemburg, “Our Program and the Political Situation”, 372–73.

[21] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Beginning” [1918], in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 342, at 343; also available (in different translation) at

[22] Rosa Luxemburg, “Our Program and the Political Situation”, 368.

[23] Rosa Luxemburg, “What Does the Spartacus League Want?” [1918], in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 349, at 350–1; also available (in different translation) at

[24] Luxemburg, “The Beginning”, 348.

Camila Vergara is a PhD candidate in political theory at Columbia University, specializing in legal and constitutional theory. Her dissertation theorizes the crisis of democracy from a structural point of view and develops a plebeian strand of constitutional thought that seeks to institutionalize experiences of popular resistance against oligarchic domination.