a disappointingly poor article on Rosa Luxemburg in today's Guardian. Damning with faint praise, she displays surprisingly little grasp of Luxemburg's ideas, lapsing into misunderstanding and tittle tattle.
The piece is prompted by the publication of 'The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg' (newly translated by George Shriver), which Rowbotham uses to wrongly portray the Polish-German revolutionary, active in Marxist politics from the late 1880s until her assassination in 1919, as anti-Leninist.
Luxemburg was a leading figure in Germany's radical left for two decades, at a time when the country was undoubtedly the centre and dominant player in the European left and workers' movement.
She wrote widely, including 'Reform or Revolution' (1900) and 'The mass strike' (1906), both important contributions to the Marxist tradition of socialism from below. They analysed the rise of reformist currents and mass trade unions, assessing the significance of these developments for the struggle for socialism.
Rowbotham is concerned, however, with rescuing Luxemburg from the revolutionary Marxists. She claims:
'My generation of left-libertarians did indeed hail Luxemburg's defiance of Lenin's "night-watchman spirit". Against his emphasis on the centralised party, many of us were drawn to Luxemburg's conviction that workers' action brought new social and political understandings.'
Later - much later, after some quite irrelevant gossip - in the review she contradicts this:
'The Communist party would retrospectively label her as an advocate of a naive spontaneity. But while she saw action as generating a transformed consciousness, her letters testify to her belief in the need for revolutionary organisation too.'
Confused? Many readers won't have the stamina to get that far into the article, so their overriding impression will be formed by the earlier reference to Luxemburg as a bravely libertarian beacon of anti-Leninism.
But it is wrong. Both Lenin and Luxemburg were revolutionaries; both recognised the need for socialist organisation in some form; both rejected 'naive spontaneity' while nonetheless seeing 'action as generating a transformed consciousness'; both had 'conviction that workers' action brought new social and political understandings.'
There were differences between Lenin and Luxemburg, which were ultimately secondary to the big questions on which they agreed. But to juxtapose them as Rowbotham does is profoundly dishonest.
The two great revolutionaries shared an understanding that spontaneity alone is insufficient for advancing working class struggle, even (or especially) at times of dramatic revolutionary upheaval. Organisation is key. Let's not forget that Luxemburg belonged to socialist parties throughout her life.
Lenin, though, had a sharper grasp than Luxemburg of the need for independent revolutionary organisation. In this he was vindicated by the Bolsheviks' role in 1917's Russian Revolution. A revolutionary organisation built in advance of the revolutionary upheaval - rooted in broader working class resistance and organisation - was indispensable to leading the revolutionary events of autumn 1917.
Germany, which had a revolutionary situation the following year, suffered in large part because there was no independently organised alternative to the Social Democratic Party - Luxemburg had spent many years, before World War One, as a leading activist and theorist on the left of that party.
Rowbotham also fails to acknowledge that Luxemburg, in her last two years, moved closer to Lenin's views on political organisation. It is as if her ideas were entirely static - she serves as a constant 'libertarian' antidote to the unspecified defects of a supposedly unchanging Leninist party model.
There is in fact no single model of organisation for revolutionaries. Lenin never suggested there was - his Bolshevik Party evolved enormously in all aspects of organisation, adapting to changing circumstances. But it is nevertheless possible to derive some key points from the experiences of revolutionaries in the years leading up to and after 1917.
An independent organisation needs a combination of principled commitment to revolutionary socialist ideas and tactical flexibility. While its political tradition may be a running thread, there will be twists and turns in precise forms of organisation, specific tactics, etc. Political and organisational independence doesn't mean isolation or elitism. It is complemented by active, constant involvement in larger organisations, e.g. trade unions, protest movements, and resistance.
It is strange that Rowbotham fails to note the differing outcomes between Russia and Germany. She would find it extremely difficult to claim Luxemburg's caution about establishing revolutionary organisation was vindicated by the events of 1917/18 (or the following few years in Germany). The defeat of Germany's revolutionary movement paved the way for the rise of Nazism.
She relies, in fact, on the erroneous assumption that Leninism led inexorably to Stalininsm, with the seeds of the latter in the (get ready to spit the word) 'centralised' party associated with Lenin. In fact Stalinism was a violent break with the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky; the bloated Soviet bureaucracy had nothing in common with the vibrant democratic centralism of the Bolsheviks.
Rowbotham writes: 'Luxemburg's criticism of Marxism as dogma and her stress on consciousness exerted an influence on the women's liberation movement which emerged in the late 60s and early 70s.'
Where is the evidence that Luxemburg perceived Marxism as dogmatic? She rightly criticised overly dogmatic and inflexible versions of Marxism, but that makes her a serious and genuine Marxist - just like Lenin, Trotsky and indeed Marx himself - not a critic of Marxism. I can't help thinking Rowbotham is, a little too conveniently, rationalising her own move away from Marxism over 30 years ago.
Marx had a deep understanding, further enriched in the 20th century by Lukacs and others, of the role of consciousness - how it is formed and how it can be transformed in the course of revolutionary action. One of Lenin's great contributions to Marxism was precisely his grasp of the kind of political organisation needed to help transform consciousness and achieve social change.
Rowbotham's reference to the women's liberation movement is misguided too. Any 1970s feminist citing Luxemburg as the basis for 'consciousness raising', i.e. the then-fashionable retreat from mass political action into intellectual navel-gazing - would be doing her a great disservice. She had a superior understanding of the unity of theory and practice, of ideas and action.
Today's revolutionaries can gain by learning from both Luxemburg and Lenin. We won't be helped by bizarre mis-readings of Rosa Luxemburg as someone defined by her supposed anti-Leninism and spurning of organisation.
In Egypt, for example, the left now faces the huge challenge of building organisation capable of taking the revolution forward. Lenin and Luxemburg alike can be their guides.