Rosa Luxemburg and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement in Poland

150 years ago, on 5 March 1871, just a few days before the Paris Commune briefly gave the working class a taste of power, Rosa Luxemburg was born in the small city of Zamość, modern day Poland. For this occasion we publish here, for the first time in English, the final part of her treatise on the “Proletariat” Party. It is also a fitting opportunity to briefly reconsider the influence that the early Polish socialist movement had on Luxemburg and the internationalist party she later led, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL).(1)

In the second half of the 19th century, Poland was still partitioned by the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires. The level of economic development across these three regions was not even, but particularly under Russian partition in Congress Poland, or the Kingdom of Poland as it was also known, there was a number of rising industrial hubs. In 1861 the first Luddite-like revolt against machinery occurred in Łódź, the first industrial strikes organised spontaneously and without trade unions were breaking out by the 1870s, and the first mass strike took place in 1883 in the town of Żyrardów, launched by women textile workers. The appearance of economic struggles had political ramifications. If previously the socialist movement in Europe placed its hopes on the independence of Poland as a spearhead against Tsarist absolutism, on the agrarian revolution as the prime condition for national emancipation, now a new generation of revolutionaries sought to put behind them the romantic traditions of Polish insurrections of 1830, 1846 and 1863 and base their perspectives on the working class instead. Initially in Warsaw in 1878, where the first ever socialist programme on Polish soil was drafted, identifying itself with the cause of the (then already dissolved) First International.(2) Then in journals produced in exile in Geneva, such as Równosć [Equality] and later Przedświt [Aurora], where the principles and tactics of socialism and anarchism were debated and the social-patriotic views of Bolesław Limanowski were criticised.(3) Finally, with the return of militants such as Ludwik Waryński to Warsaw in 1881, who helped to unite the disparate Marxist circles into one organisation. Out of these efforts, the first Polish Marxist party was officially founded in 1882 – the International Social Revolutionary Party “Proletariat”, also known as the First “Proletariat” or simply, the “Proletariat”.

In the first half of her 1903 article, In Memory of the “Proletariat” Party, available on, Luxemburg briefly sums up this history. She begins by criticising how the memory of the martyrs of the party – Stanisław Kunicki, Piotr Bardowski, Jan Pietrusiński and Michał Ossowski, executed on the slopes of the Warsaw Citadel by Tsarist authorities in 1886 – had been (mis)appropriated by all kinds of political tendencies, even social-patriots (if she could only know what would happen to her own legacy!). She examines the internationalism of the “Proletariat” Party, which while at first abstract was gradually given a more materialist basis. She also examines how the party, by rightly seeking a political union with Russian revolutionaries, ended up being torn by contradictory influences from the West (Marxism) and the East (Narodnism).

The second half of the article, which we present here, develops this critique further, drawing up a comprehensive balance sheet of the “Proletariat” Party until its very demise – on the one hand, a result of Tsarist repression (in total around 345 activists connected in some way to the party were sentenced by the authorities, a few were executed and many died in captivity), on the other, a consequence of internal political contradictions which eventually drove it to irrelevance (both political, degeneration into nationalism, and organisational, becoming little more than a publishing group abroad). Waryński himself, its most distinguished member, was arrested in 1883, put on trial in 1885 and sentenced to 16 years in prison, where he would die of tuberculosis in 1889. There were multiple attempts to revive the “Proletariat” Party – Luxemburg, still a teenager at the time, was involved in the 1888 attempt. A few of those “Proletariat” activists who survived, and remained politically active, would later take part in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and could be found in the ranks of the SDKPiL, the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) or the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).

There is a few threads here worth picking up on however. Luxemburg writes from the standpoint of social democracy, today a synonym for reformism, but back then simply the name for those who embraced Marxism, or scientific socialism, and belonged to the Second International (which had both a majority reformist and a minority revolutionary wing). For Luxemburg, Blanquism in France and Narodnism in Russia represented outdated political tendencies not fit for understanding and challenging the realities of the modern capitalist world. At the same time however, social democracy itself was not fully formed, and in the territories of the Russian Empire, under conditions of illegality, the social democratic organisations initially emerged out of study and propaganda circles. Moving beyond this local form of organisation was the first necessary step towards building a real party capable of mass agitation. All this explains why Luxemburg sees political overtures to Blanquism, and organisational relapses into circle work, by the “Proletariat” Party in the 1880s as real step backs when compared to the theory and practice of social democracy as developed in Germany (the inspiration for most socialists at the time). In the SDKPiL and the RSDLP, Luxemburg saw more advanced organisations, which had finally superseded the limitations of previous groups, like the “Proletariat” Party or the “Narodnaya Volya”. Some might be surprised here, but in this she stood absolutely shoulder to shoulder with Lenin. Now the Second Congress of the RSDLP, which saw the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, happened a few months after this article was written. There is a common misconception that Luxemburg accused the Bolsheviks, and Lenin in particular, of Blanquism. She was indeed initially wary of the Bolsheviks – the Mensheviks were much more connected, politically and socially, to the German Party so here Lenin seemed like a maverick – but particularly in the course of the 1905 revolution, she gradually began to recognise the Bolsheviks as the best political element in the Russian movement (even if she held onto the hopes that the RSDLP could one day be re-united).

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 counter-revolution 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. … 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.

Luxemburg, Blanquism and Social Democracy, 1906,

Back to the 1880s however. Marx and Engels were at the time dismissive of this brand new tendency in Polish socialism, despite its formal adherence to Marxism. They dismissed it not because of the tactics that were adopted from “Narodnaya Volya” (which, as Luxemburg points out, even Marx and Engels had certain illusions about), but because of the rejection of Polish independence:

Polish socialists who do not place the liberation of their country at the head of their programme, appear to me as would German socialists who do not demand first and foremost repeal of the socialist law, freedom of the press, association and assembly. In order to be able to fight one needs first a soil to stand on, air, light and space. Otherwise all is idle chatter. … As concerns the differences between the Poles in Switzerland, those are quarrels between émigrés, which are rarely of importance, and least so among an émigré group which in three years will celebrate its hundredth anniversary, and among which, with the impulse of all émigrés to do, or at least to plan something new, one plan has followed another, one allegedly new theory has replaced another. From what I have already said, it becomes clear that we do not share the views of the people associated with “Równosc” and we have told them this in a declaration on the occasion of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of 29 November 1830, which was read at the Geneva meeting. You find this declaration printed in Polish in the Report of the meeting. It appears that the “Równosc” group has been impressed by the radically sounding phrases of the Geneva Russians, and now want to prove also that the reproach of chauvinist nationalism does not touch them. This deviation founded on purely local and passing causes will play itself out without much effect in Poland itself and does not deserve to be refuted in detail.

Engels to Kautsky, Nationalism, Internationalism and the Polish Question, 1882,

Engels was mistaken. This “deviation”, rather than play itself out without much effect, became the point of departure for revolutionary Marxists in Poland which allowed them to split with the reformist wing of Marxism already in 1893. It was the national question which drove a wedge between the social-patriotic PPS and the internationalist SDKPiL. Henceforth, in the course of such historical world-events as the revolution of 1905, the first imperialist world war and the revolutionary wave which followed the Russian Revolution, the SDKPiL constituted a distinct reference point for the working class. Alongside the likes of the Russian Bolsheviks, the Bulgarian Tesnyaki, and the Dutch Tribunists, the SDKPiL was among the few parties that emerged out of the Second International with their internationalist credentials intact, and its militants became key proponents for the creation of the Third International. And in December 1918, on the wave of a movement of workers’ councils, they would drag the left of the PPS into their orbit to finally create the Communist Workers' Party of Poland (KPRP). The tragic fate of that party, and the internationalists who made it, we have already documented elsewhere.(4) Meanwhile, in Germany, Luxemburg having for years led a valiant struggle against the reformists in the German Party would end up organisationally splitting from them too late, in December 1918. As we all know, she would meet a no less tragic end during the course of the failed German Revolution.(5)

Since then, the views of Luxemburg (and by extension, Waryński) on the national question have left a definite mark on the Communist Left. What might have been a new and open debate in the 1880s – the “Proletariat” dissolved having not, as Luxemburg points out, been able to relate successfully to the class – the arrival of the imperialist phase of capitalism around the turn of the century should have resolved. In a world where movements of national independence can only win with the support of this or that imperialist faction, where capitalism has already extended its stranglehold over the globe, there is no “progressive” side to support any more but that of the working class itself. It is a theme that we will undoubtedly come back to in future articles.


February 2021

(1) The 1892 general strike in Łódź gave new impetus for the coming together of revolutionaries. The Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland was founded in 1893 out of the elements which disagreed with the national question as formulated in the programme of the PPS. In 1899 the party merged with the Union of Workers in Lithuania, led by Felix Dzerzhinsky, to form the SDKPiL.

(2) For an English translation of the so-called Brussels Programme of 1878 (named so to confuse the authorities as to its origins), see: For a brief summary early days of the socialist movement in Poland (1876-1893), see:

(3) Bolesław Limanowski (1835-1935) was initially a contributor to the journal Równość in Geneva, but left it over disagreement regarding the national question. He would instead join and create various pro-independence socialist and liberal groups, and in 1892 he helped co-found the PPS. In 1907 he would side with the right wing fraction of Józef Piłsudski and in independent Poland he would stand in parliament.

(4) See: A Brief History of the Communist Workers’ Party of Poland, Who were the Grzechists? and many other related articles on our website.

(5) See: A Hundred Years On: Lessons of the German Revolution and A Hundred Years Since the Murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

In Memory of the “Proletariat” Party

Przegląd Socjaldemokratyczny [Social Democratic Review], Year II, No.2 (February 1903), parts I-IV available on


The political evolution of the party could not but affect its practical activities.

This was primarily expressed in two ways: the disappearance of mass agitation and of any political action whatsoever.

In theory, the “Proletariat” Party based itself, in accordance with its programme, on the class struggle and emphasised, until the very end, the importance of mass struggle and agitation on the basis of day-to-day interests.(6) But, once it stood on the ground of the immediate pursuit of socialist revolution, and on the road of conspiracy of a “brave minority”, it lost the actual thread of mass struggle. Just in the tactical conception as formulated e.g. in the previously quoted article “My i Burżuazja” [us and the bourgeoisie] in issue no.8 of the paper Proletarjat, the mass of the people is ascribed a passive role up until the very moment of the social revolution. “The masses accept their inability to carry out a revolution, they look for people on whom they can rely, to whom they can entrust leadership, and until that time they remain silent.” The division of revolutionary roles in this theory then corresponds to the Ancient Greek tragedy: individuals act, the masses provide the choir, that is, the passive echo of the acts.

The Blanquist tactic swaps the principle: the emancipation of the working classes must be the act of the working class itself, for the principle: the emancipation of the working classes must be the act of a handful of conspirators.

Furthermore, the technique of struggle itself excludes mass activity. Conspiracy with whatever associated programme, and terrorism as the main and permanent form of struggle, never was and naturally never can be a mass affair, but only that of a small circle of individuals. As such, the mass agitation proclaimed by the “Proletariat” had to remain unapplied.

As evidence of the mass agitation by the “Proletariat” two well-known facts are usually brought up: the action in February 1883 in response to the order of the Chief of Police of Warsaw, concerning sanitation checks of women workers(7), and in March 1885 in response to the demonstration of the unemployed on the Castle Square in Warsaw.

However, these examples cannot remotely serve to support the claim that the “Proletariat” actually induced, or was able to induce, a mass movement in Poland.

In both of the examples, the party proved that it understood the necessity of reaching out to the masses, of standing in their defence in certain exceptional times, in situations created independently of its will and initiative. In the first example, the party cleverly utilised a single order of the authorities to issue a brave appeal to the masses, aimed at resisting that order; in the second example, finding itself in the face of a spontaneous demonstration of an unconscious and unorganised crowd of workers, it issued an appeal, calling them under its banner. However, both of these examples prove at the same time that the “Proletariat”, from its tactical standpoint, was completely unable to use these circumstances to establish permanent mass agitation. In order to achieve this, the party would have to be able to show the agitated masses of workers some immediate tangible tasks, some immediate understandable action. This could have been by showing the degraded women workers, and the unemployed workers, that the despotic government, that political lawlessness, are the most important obstacles in the way of improving their material and social standing, while at the same explaining the necessity of organising for the day-to-day struggle against exploitation by individual capitalists just as against the Tsarist government for political freedoms. In short, the party could only establish permanent mass agitation if it had in advance a programme of day-to-day struggle – economic and political – designed for mass action.

Instead, the “Proletariat” Party pursued immediate socialist revolution, and according to its own initiative, ascribing the working class the role of a passive observer until the very moment of the revolution. It had simply no way to bring about and lead a mass demonstration, which caught it unaware.

At the same time, both examples clearly show a change taking place to some degree, as with the gradual moving away from a more social democratic standpoint, the relationship between the party and the masses gradually faded away.

In the first example, the proclamation to the women workers in 1883, we do not find even the slightest political conclusion from such fertile material as the order of the Tsarist authorities, but at least we find a certain tangible hint of practical activity, namely the appeal for the creation of factory unions and strike funds.(8)

In the second proclamation, because of the 1885 demonstration on Castle Square, we find no immediate practical slogan whatsoever. The party calls on the unemployed, those crying out for bread and work on the streets of Warsaw, to realise the socialist system – necessarily of course in the most vague and demagogic form.(9)

In this way the party itself removed the masses economically and politically from immediate struggle, investing itself with the authority to act for them and in their name.

So the “Proletariat”, incessantly preaching mass agitation, limited itself in reality more and more to the propaganda of a circle, and in the best of cases to fishing individuals out of the masses in order to involve them in the secret party organisation.

In this way the political struggle of the “Proletariat” was reduced to speculation on the coming “explosion”, and its agitation was limited to circle activity, while at the same time its disappearance over time became unavoidable.

The fate of the “Proletariat” was influenced also by another circumstance. Conspiratorial activity, aimed at overthrowing the governments and seizing power, can only be applied where the central state power, the main government organs, are actually located. “Zachvat vlasti” [taking power for itself] can be at best imagined in Petersburg, but not in Warsaw given its subordinate provincial importance in the state apparatus of Russia. If the province has an auxiliary role in the event of the “explosion”, then until that “explosion”, its role is reduced to idle waiting and circle propaganda. Likewise, systematic terror, which was the main form of activity of “Narodnaya Volya” [People's Will](10) and had as its aim the disorganisation of the government, could only be practised towards the main representatives of the central government, that is in the capital, and not towards secondary and tertiary provincial governors – unless it was punishment for specific offences.

But it is a different matter if we stand on the position of mass struggle against Tsarism for democratic freedoms, as social democracy understands it. Undoubtedly here also the decisive and influential role belongs to Russia proper. But because from this point of view Tsarism can only be overthrown by the direct action of the working class itself, then precisely the struggle of the proletariat across the whole territory of the Russian state is a necessary precondition for permanent victory. On the other hand, because the working class itself, and not a handful of socialist ringleader-conspirators, is to realise the fruits of victory over Tsarism, that is democratic freedoms – then the development of the highest stage of political class consciousness is necessary across all spheres and groups of the proletariat inhabiting the Russian state.

And so from the standpoint of conspiracy, Polish socialists were doomed to inaction from the start, the role of passive observers attached to the chariot of the Russian “Narodnaya Volya”. However, we must also add that “Narodnaya Volya”, when the “Proletariat” formally joined it in common struggle, found itself on a downward slope. From the moment of the assassination of Alexander II [13 March 1881], its history is that of gradual collapse, and from the mid-eighties in the Russian movement what begins to be felt is the destructive influence of the inevitable standpoint in which the conspiratorial party, lacking the power to carry out terrorist attacks, begins to live by talking about them or trying to induce them in the most inconvenient conditions. And when in Russia, the only place where such action could take place, stagnation began, in Poland the movement quickly declined as well. Indeed, the “Proletariat” never practised the terrorism which it talked so much about in its agitation during its final years. The only terrorist acts were two assassination attempts on the traitor Śremski, and the killing of traitors Helszer and Skrzypczyński. But the removal of spies and traitors, where necessary and possible, was simply an act of self-defence in the political conditions of Tsarism and has nothing in common with the actual programme and tactics of terrorism.(11)

In reality, terrorism in the history of the “Proletariat” was confined to the realm of intent, and hence its political action came to an end.


So far we have considered the activity of the “Proletariat” from two sides – the understanding of the political programme, how it evolved in a short period of time under the influence of “Narodnaya Volya”, and its practical work in the form given to it by the political programme.

Tactics aside, the “Proletariat” Party also distinguished itself, as we know, from its Russian sister by its firm recognition of the theory of Marx and Engels, and emphasised this difference already in its programme from 1882, as well as in its agreement with “Narodnaya Volya” from 1884, and finally in its propaganda activity until the very end. In its overall justification of socialism, the “Proletariat” formally remained until the last moment a follower of Western-European, more precisely German, social democracy.

This fact by itself did not contradict the conspiratorial character of the “Proletariat”. Not being properly a theory and not having its own theory of social development, Blanquism reconciled itself more or less with all socialist theory.

For example, it is interesting to note that, as Friedrich Engels stated, the first manifesto in which French workers recognised “German communism”, that is the theory of scientific socialism, was precisely the aforementioned programme of French Blanquists from 1874.(12)

However little the basic views of “German communism” – the materialist conception of history, the theory of class struggle, the theory of stages of social development – were initially in harmony with the tactic of arbitrarily “doing” revolution and with faith in the omnipotence of political power, nevertheless this merger was a huge step forward for French socialism, whence began a new epoch in the history of this influential fraction of the workers’ movement of France.

From this moment, not only in theory, but also in their understanding of immediate tasks, the French Blanquists increasingly approached the point of view of social democracy. Already in the nineties the party of Édouard Vaillant was “Blanquist” in name only, while in essence absolutely social democratic.(13) The recent unification of this organisation with the party of French Marxists finalised the natural evolution which the Blanquists had begun already in the seventies.

However, for Polish socialism, for which “German communism” was the point of departure in the early eighties, the merging of the Marxist doctrine with the Blanquist tactics of “Narodnaya Volya” was not a step forward in its evolution, nor did it give it an advantage over contemporary Russian socialism, compared to which it lost out on internal uniformity and consistency.

In fact as we said, if Blanquism in its proper homeland, in France, did not come up with a social theory, which then forced it to implant itself to foreign theories, even ones genuinely at odds with it, then the exception in that regard was precisely Russian socialism.

Here, by exceptional coincidence, for the first and only time in its history, Blanquist tactics found a particular and specific theory of social development, which gave it – seemingly at least – a certain materialist basis, some justification, forming a historical and social world-view. The basis of this was precisely the theory of “Narodnism”.

Blanquism relied, as we know, on the supposition of the abolition of any system and the introduction of a socialist order, not being able to find any other legitimacy for it, other than decisive strength of political power. The theory of “Narodnism” happily filled that vacuum, if not by a general social doctrine, then at least with the help of the Russia-specific theory of the “obshchina” [or mir, the peasant commune].

By searching the remains of the Russian communal administration – nota bene as scientific research proved a long time ago a creation of a purely statist and fiscal character associated with the institution of serfdom – by searching these remains for the natural principle of the people's economy and the psyche of the Russian peasantry, the “Narodniks” thought that they found in the remains of the “obshchina” an Archimedean foothold for the immediate introduction of socialism in Russia. The bypassing of all stages of development in the spirit of Blanquist action found here an apparent justification in the particular system of the Russian rural economy, from which the development of capitalist production and the bourgeois system in Russia seemed like a deviation, a diversion from the simplest and shortest way to socialism.

By accepting this explanation of Russian social development from the “Narodniks”, “Narodnaya Volya” stood in its understanding of the action and immediate tasks of socialism on a sort of stable ground. Just how erroneous this theory of an “independent” historical road for Russia was, we know from the comprehensive assessment in the publications of the Russian group “Osvobozhdenie Truda” [Emancipation of Labour Group].(14) However it is not about the truth or error of these views in this case, but about their compatibility with the special tactics of Russian terrorists.

Indeed, if the economic and social basis for the realisation of the socialist ideal already existed – in the form of the “obshchina” – ready-made in the womb of Russian society, then of course all that was needed was to take over the state machine and get rid of obstacles, such as the despotic government, in the way of the spontaneous development of socialism. If on the other hand the communist ideal already lived in the innate natural instinct of minds and souls, then all that remained for the socialist party was to rally the people to power and decisive action, while special agitation with the aim of spreading consciousness and organisation of the masses was unnecessary.

As such, the tactics of “Narodnaya Volya” formed a kind of uniform whole with their basic theory about the special historic development of Russia. Quite the opposite in the case of the “Proletariat”. Here the tactics were at odds at every step with the general principles of socialism, accepted and propagated by the party.

When Russian socialists tried to get to socialism through the “obshchina”, by way of skipping a whole period of the bourgeois system, the Polish socialists, basing their reason for existence on the capitalist system of socio-economic relations in the Kingdom of Poland [i.e. Congress Poland], they wanted at the same time to bypass the phase of bourgeois-parliamentarian government, representing the actual natural consequence and political correlate of the capitalist economy.

When “Narodnaya Volya” was speculating on the innate communist views of the Russian peasantry, the “Proletariat”, counting on the development of a socialist consciousness in the Polish industrial proletariat, rejected at the same time the very political conditions in which such a consciousness could actually develop in the class struggle. In this way, the Marxist world-view, instead of being an advantage that Polish socialism had over “native” Russian socialism, created in it a number of internal contradictions.

On the other hand, given the special political forms of Tsarism in which the “Proletariat” worked, this contradiction brought about by the merging of Blanquist tactics with the theory of scientific socialism, produced the exact opposite effect to what we saw in France. There, from the seventies onwards, the Third Republic, a bourgeois formation at its highest political development, provided the foundation. So the Blanquist contempt for “parliamentary games” and similar “compromises”, in light of possessing already all the conditions of broad day-to-day class struggle, remained more or less harmless phrase-mongering. Theory, towards which socialists were pushed at every step by the practicalities of political life and the constant development of elementary class struggle, eventually prevailed over the contradictory tactics.

In the Kingdom of Poland however, in the conditions of absolutist Tsarist rule, contempt for “bourgeois liberalism” was not an expression of disappointment, or rather the misunderstanding of the historical value of democratic forms already achieved, but in fact indifference towards their achievement.

Considering that the abolition of Tsarism and the achievement of democratic forms is a life or death question for the socialist movement under the Russian state, the tactics of the “Proletariat”, which in such a fatal way did away with this vital question, had to have a decisive influence. In contrast to the history of the French Blanquists, here the tactics had to frustrate the practical meaning of the propagated theory, or more precisely, mould all theoretical concepts in their image.

The tasks of a historian and a critic of social theories would be rather shallow and simple, if words and concepts always carried the same ideological content, I dare say in a congealed state, if they were signposts for always the same ideological values. In reality, the exact opposite happens, and in one sense we could say, even if it sounds paradoxical, that nothing gives such an inaccurate image of the spiritual aspect of some party of the past as its own words.

If someone were to judge the “Proletariat” Party purely based on the general views on the principles and tasks of socialism expressed in its literature, they would surprised by the emphasis with which it repeated until the very end the views from the theoretical treasury of Marxism. Knowing now the concrete ways in which the “Proletariat” applied its general rules, and the conclusions it drew for its activity, we know that sometimes it was a language of Marxism through which the party expressed entirely un-Marxist concepts.

The “Proletariat” considered, entirely in the spirit of the Communist Manifesto, that the proper basis for the socialist movement and the realisation of socialism is the “bourgeois system”. But by this it understood only the economic side – the capitalist mode of production, not the political as well – the direct rule of the bourgeoisie in government and law. At the same time it took for the basis of socialism the existence of a capitalist economy in some size, not its development; it took capitalism to be a state rather than a process.

Furthermore, the “Proletariat” recognised the “organisation of the working class” to be the guarantee for carrying out the socialist revolution. But it understood by it the unity of the working masses only for the moment of the social revolution, not for the day-to-day struggle against the ruling classes. It thought it possible to organise the masses simply by proclaiming the necessity of revolution, rather than through the gradual course of the struggle for day-to-day interests. In a word, it understood the organisation of the working class to be an artificial product of socialist agitation, not the natural historic product of class struggle, to which socialist agitation brings only consciousness.

Although the “Proletariat” did consider “class struggle” to be the alpha and omega of socialism, it understood by it mainly the clash of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in the form of revolution, taking in this way one moment of a historical process for the whole of the process.

Finally, through the transformation of all these concepts, the “social revolution” in the mouth of the “Proletariat” also expressed something else; not the non-political result of the maturity of productive forces to shed the shackles of capitalism, as social democratic thought would have it, but only the result of the free use of political violence by a small minority of socialists, dragging the masses behind them on the basis of dissatisfaction with current conditions and longing for a change for the better.

In this gradual spiritual evolution of Polish socialism, the initial theoretical views became modes of thinking from which the actual content completely disappeared, to be be replaced by Blanquist content.


As usual in such circumstances, the less the tactical views of the “Proletariat” found positive ground and means of actualisation, the more sharply and loudly they were expressed in the slogans of the party. “Revolutionary” phrase-mongering, stripped of all deeper theoretical discussion, multiplied in party literature, particularly after police repression removed the older generation of “Proletariat” activists from the scene, as party agitation across the country weakened and was reduced to circle activity, despite the sacrificial efforts of brave individuals who remained attracted to the “Proletariat” banner until the last moment. Already in 1885 Przedświt [Aurora] practised the most thoughtless apotheosis of violent means, highlighting e.g. across nine long columns the question of regicide, and examining with all seriousness the question of whether the execution of rulers should be done via a people’s verdict after the revolution or whether the revolution should start with the execution of rulers.(15)

Without a doubt no socialist today, with the exception of fantasists of the Bernsteinian kind, is under the illusion that any serious political revolution, let alone a socialist revolution, is possible through the road of “legal”, pacifist and non-violent abolition of counter-revolutionary powers. Likewise, no one will deny that in revolutionary times the need may arise for the removal of a crowned head, as it happened with Louis XVI who, as a traitor to the state, conspiring with the external enemies of the nation and in effect as a foothold of the counter-revolutionary party, constituted a serious danger for the fate of the revolution. But looking at “scaffolds for the ruling dynasties” as an indispensable and important prerequisite of all people’s revolutions is undoubtedly an original idea. Involuntarily, the words of Engels come to mind, spoken once in response to similar revolutionary excesses of French Blanquists: “To such follies are people driven, when they give free rein to the desire to appear formidable, although they are basically quite good-natured.” Yet the “follies” of the Polish revolutionaries in exile had a certain characteristic basis. Through these jarring “revolutionary” ideas breaks through the hope for an imminent “explosion” of the social revolution (in Tsarist Russia!), and what is more, the belief that the guarantee for a successful revolution is primarily the plentiful and correct use of violent means. The details regarding the use of physical violence in a future revolution, which from the perspective of the developmental route to socialism are irrelevant for the time being, or rather their examination is of no concern for grown-ups, these details from the conspiratorial point of view become of first-class importance. The belief in the omnipotence of the political factor, the point of departure for Blanquism, with vulgarised agitation becomes a belief in the omnipotence of naked physical violence – barricades, “scaffolds”, “flails and stanchions”.

No less characteristic a symptom is e.g. the second idea of Przedświt from the same period, that is agitation for “professional education” of workers, and this with the aim of organising production on “the day after the revolution”.(16)

Not understanding that socialist production, from a technical standpoint, matures right now in the womb of capitalism, that because of this, its organisation the victorious proletariat will take over in ready-made form from bourgeois society, in order to build upon a historically given foundation, reforming the relations of ownership etc. – not understanding this, the theoreticians of Przedświt seem to have thought that “after the revolution” the social economy will constitute a sort of tabula rasa on which only then will production be organised anew, according to “the best” plan imagined by the united efforts of today’s shoemakers, carpenters, locksmiths, etc.

This purely mechanical understanding of socialist revolution and the artificial “doing” of revolution, is transferred here from the political sphere to the economic. We could not have a better demonstration of this complete break with the theory of social development and historical materialism: whether it is the assumption that “revolution” and the victory of the proletariat is at all possible before the process of production is sufficiently socialised, and productive forces developed, so that the political act of revolution will only tear apart the limiting bonds of the bourgeois system, or the assumption that the “plan” for this socialist organisation of production can be made right now and at any time – and for every branch of production separately.

The concern for preparing in advance the technicians for the future system is the logical complement to the concern for “scaffolds” for today’s ruling dynasties, and together it is a picture of a complete reduction of socialist theory to the plains of profanity.

After 1886, the foreign publishing group of Przedświt and Walka Klas [Class Struggle], left to its own devices, like a spinning wheel detached from the mechanism, begins to travel through the ups and downs of all kinds theoretical views. On that journey – e.g. in the brochure “Do oficerów wojsk rosyjskich” [to the officers of the Russian military] – it wades for a moment into the most common pan-Slavism and spinning faster and faster, it finally falls into a “serial” change of political convictions, finally jumping out with all the momentum from the old track, it makes a violent arc in the air and sinks deep into the quagmire of nationalism. After all, the fate of Przedświt after 1886-1887 already belongs not so much to the history of the Polish socialist movement, as to the history of the scrap heap of socialist emigration.

The ideological development of the first period of Polish socialism actually ends with the year 1884, i.e. the moment when the Blanquist transformation of the “Proletariat” Party revealed all its consequences.

The last ray that falls on the page of the intellectual history of the “Proletariat”, resembling the moment of the initial spiritual flowering of Polish socialism, are the words of Waryński, not spoken among feverish activity, in a party newspaper or at a gathering of revolutionaries, but after twenty-eight-months of torment, among the fat of gendarmes and spies, in a courtroom in December 1885.

From this speech it seems for sure, that this certainly most prominent representative of socialist thought in Poland did not personally succumb to such a radical change of views as one can ascertain in the Polish socialist movement of that era. Admittedly we unfortunately lack the clues that would allow us to clearly separate Waryński's own thoughts and activities from the collective activity of his group, and as such we cannot accurately explain his position towards the clear Blanquist evolution, which emerged when he was still free in 1883. We also find it difficult to assume that, in the face of these manifestations, Waryński could have completely protected himself from the influence of “Narodnaya Volya”. The documents from the trial of the “Proletarians” unfortunately did not preserve his views on the political tasks of socialists. But from the summary of his speech which we do have, it appears utterly certain that Waryński completely saved himself from vulgarising socialist theory in its main principles, and that the general views of Marxist doctrine constituted the basis of his world-view until the very last moment – in their proper depth and theoretical seriousness.

Because in Waryński's speech, what is most striking is the characteristic emphasis on the active role of the working class as such in socialist aspirations, on the day-to-day class struggle.

When entering the political arena, the working class should oppose organisation against organisation and in the name of defined ideals should fight with the existing social system. This is the task of the workers' party, fighting under the banner of socialism. It creates the counterweight to other social classes, and builds a dam against reactionary aspirations. Striving for a radical change of the social system, the workers’ party carries out preparatory work towards it in the current period. Its task is about awakening workers to consciously refer to their interests, and about calling them to persistent defence of their rights. The workers’ party disciplines and organises the working class and leads it in the fight against the government and the privileged classes.

No less significant is the fact that Waryński speaks of terror only as an auxiliary means in day-to-day struggle, to gain more favourable conditions for organisation and mass action. He clearly rejects the role of terror as a means to implement a social revolution. “Action by violent means,” he says, “is a sad but inevitable consequence of the defectiveness of today's system. Economic terrorism is by no means a way of achieving our social tasks; but under certain conditions it is the only means of fighting evil, rooted in the contemporary social system”.

However wrong this view of tactics in the economic struggle, there is no doubt that on this point also Waryński’s illusion regarding the beneficial effects of terrorism were by no means the result of a conspiratorial view of socialist struggle, but only an incorrect evaluation of the practical methods of class struggle. The proof of this is the fact that as an example of his understanding of economic terrorism Waryński brings up the original tactics of English trade unions at the beginning of the last century, a result of the political conditions in England preventing open organisation and sectoral struggle and a way of gaining the appropriate freedoms.

Most important of all is the emphasis placed by Waryński in his speech on the role of the objective factors of spontaneous social development, towards which the socialist party mainly plays the role of raising consciousness of the historical direction of the working class struggle.

We know that increasing social antagonisms and the swelling-wounds on the social body inevitably lead to an explosion. We also know how terrible a havoc occurs when poverty drives the masses of the people to the uttermost limits of despair and elementary forces throw themselves at the existing order of things with reckless abandon. Precisely because of this, our task is to prepare the working class for revolution, make the movement conscious and embrace organisational discipline, to set out a specific programme of aims and means.

We do not stand above history, we submit to its laws. We see the revolution for which we are striving as the result of the development of historical and social conditions. We anticipate it, and try not to get caught out unprepared.

Finally, Waryński categorically rejects the tactic of immediate preparation for the social revolution, for the “explosion”.

We organised the working class for the struggle with the current regime. We did not organise a revolution, but we organised for a revolution.

Is it possible, on the basis of our characterisation of the aims and principles of the “Proletariat” Party, is it possible to call our activity a conspiracy, for the purpose of violently overthrowing the existing state, economic and social order?

From the previous analysis we already know that at the time Waryński spoke the above words, his party stood very far from the views presented by him in front of the court. The ideas guiding Waryński’s activity – the spiritual connection of Polish and Russian socialism, realised right after the founding of the “Proletariat” – created consequences in the given concrete conditions that were already visible next to him, but which Waryński neither anticipated nor recognised.

Today, however, if we become aware of the history of the “Proletariat” as a whole, they represent a perfectly logical development.

Poland's social relations, shaped by a much developed capitalism, as well as Western European influences, led Polish socialism to the social democratic standpoint already in 1881. The conclusion deduced from this standpoint, the principle of a common programme and common action with Russian socialism, left Polish socialism in the eighties under the influence of “Narodnaya Volya”. This influence in turn pulled it onto the tracks of Blanquism, on which after a few years together with the Russian movement it had to disappear.

This closes the first chapter of the history of socialist thought in Poland, but the conclusions, which could already have been made a priori with complete certainty, are as follows: as far as Polish socialism regains its freedom of movement, to pursue its own tendency of internal development, corresponding to the system of social relations in the Kingdom of Poland, it must return to a social democratic standpoint. On the other hand, the development of the social democratic movement in the Kingdom of Poland will only be permanently guaranteed when Russian socialism also stands on the grounds of social democracy.

The first of these conditions was satisfied by the period of stagnation in the socialist movement that followed the collapse of “Narodnaya Volya”, during which Polish socialism, liberated from the influences of “spontaneous” Russian theories, already with the beginning of the nineties led to a mass movement in the Kingdom of Poland, and soon indeed (in 1893) to the formal organisation of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland.

The second condition was fulfilled by the mass movement of the industrial proletariat in Russia which, arising in the mid-nineties, once and for all removed the material ground from under the feet of “native” theories of socialism, already long defeated by the criticism of the Russian Marxists, and permanently laid the foundations for a Russian social democratic party.

Rosa Luxemburg

February 1903

(6) Still in the aforementioned agreement of the Central Committee with the Executive Committee of “Narodnaya Volya” we find a distinct passage:

in this way, the party's activity mainly boils down to spreading among workers an awareness of their class separateness, on the one hand, by way of socialist propaganda, on the other, by agitation among the masses on the grounds of immediate day-do-day interests and through organised struggle for them against the privileged classes and the government, the result of which should be the disorganisation of the existing state machinery.

(7) The order declared that if a factory owner deems a female worker to be “morally impure”, she must undergo a “sanitation check” at the hands of the authorities in order to resume work at the factory. [translator’s note]

(8) “Let every factory, every workshop, every warehouse become one circle. Create funds to help comrades persecuted for resistance, so that in the future you can collectively abandon workshops and force your “masters” to make concessions.” Przedświt, Year II, No.15, 10 April 1883

(9) Having explained the economic side of the bourgeois economy and its anarchy, the proclamation ends:

But that's enough! We want human rights too. Let us take privileges from the powerful, let us share in fair labour (?) and its product.
Comrades! This is our goal. It is time to understand that we can achieve it when we shake hands and stand together against our enemies whom we can face more boldly and threateningly; and although victory will take yet more sacrifice, the future belongs to us! We call upon all our worker brothers in the name of human rights, under one banner, under one slogan: “freedom, factories and land”; we call on all people of good will to the fight against the yoke that crushes humanity. And again: “Proletarians of all countries, unite”.

Walka Klas, Year I, No.10-11-12, February-March-April 1885

Although every socialist must take advantage of arising mass movements in order to always indicate further perspectives of the final liberation of the proletariat, these indications will only take on real meaning for the masses if at the same time the path leading to these more distant goals is clearly explained. And slogans as elusive as those delivered by the “Proletariat” must have remained, as is easy to see, an incomprehensible noise, an empty phrase, and could not enrich the consciousness of the masses even by one political concept, nor be an indication of what to do next. In this way, even such valiant agitational moments like the above two had to pass without permanent results on the character of the movement. It is all the more clear that under ordinary circumstances and by way of regular agitation the “Proletariat” Party was even less able to generate any degree of political consciousness and active will among the broader masses, and organise them to any extent.

Furthermore, the agitation and economic organisation among the masses, on which the “Proletariat” put so much weight in its writings, became for the same reason impossible. From the point of view of the explosion for which the popular mass wait “in silence”, its economic struggle loses its purpose altogether. It is also in this sense that the party introduces the principle in the second issue of its Warsaw magazine Proletarjat, in the article “Bezrobocie i terror” [unemployment and terror]:

When unemployment [meaning here strike action] benefits the worker so little, we should only invoke it after very careful consideration and calculation of chances of success. If, despite our will, a strike breaks out, we should give it the direction and character of an energetic struggle, but not a mass one, an individual one. When peaceful struggle does not guarantee us victory, we must resort to armed struggle, to terror.

And again:

Peaceful unemployment [strike] will not achieve the goal, it must be accompanied by the punishment of those who cause such incidents and spread misery and oppression all around. We do not need to invoke the masses for such a struggle, such a struggle should consist of individual activity, take the form of a secretive and mysterious punishment and revenge.

(10) “Narodnaya Volya” was a clandestine revolutionary organisation founded in 1879 when it emerged out of the earlier group “Zemlya i Volya”. It was loosely inspired by the collectivist anarchism of Bakunin and the “going to the people” populism of Narodniks, and infamous for its acts of “propaganda of the deed” meant to spur the peasant masses into action: sabotage and murder. After the successful assassination of Tsar Alexander II it underwent an internal crisis from which it never recovered. Some of its tactics were later picked up by the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs). [translator’s note]

(11) This is clearly stated by Waryński in his speech before the court, contradicting the prosecutor's assertion that the “Proletariat” used “internal and external” terror:

Under terrorism, violent acts are committed against the people representing a certain political system. Simply put, the label of terrorism cannot even be applied to what Mr. Prosecutor likes to call internal and external terror, i.e. the murder of traitors and spies. With the existence of a secret organisation there is the related necessity to take certain measures for the protection of your own safety. This is so commonplace that in the statutes of the famous Illuminati secret society, to which crowned heads and even popes belonged, there was a paragraph punishing betrayal by death.

Z pola Walki, p.149

(12) “The second point of the programme is Communism. Here we are more at home, for the ship in which we sail here is called “The Manifesto of the Communist Party, published in February 1848.” Already in the autumn of 1872 the five Blanquists who withdrew from the International had adopted a socialist programme, which was in all essential points that of the present German Communism. They had justified their withdrawal by the fact that the International refused to play at revolution making after the manner of these five. Now this council of thirty-three adopts this programme with its entire materialist conception of history, although its translation into Blanquist French leaves a good deal to be desired, in parts where the “Manifesto” has not been adopted almost verbatim.” Internationales aus dem Volksstaat, p.44 [English translation available here:]

(13) Édouard Vaillant (1840-1915) was a veteran of the Paris Commune, who in exile in Great Britain led the Blanquist tendency within the First International. After the amnesty of 1880, Vaillant went back to France and founded the Blanquist Central Revolutionary Committee (later, the Socialist Revolutionary Party) which in 1902 united with the Marxist French Workers' Party of Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue, giving birth to the Socialist Party of France. This was the political evolution which Luxemburg here alludes to. Later, in 1905, the Socialist Party of France merged with the French Socialist Party of Jean Jaurès to create the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO). Vaillant ended up supporting the Entente in the First World War. [translator’s note]

(14) The Emancipation of Labour Group, founded in 1883 by Georgi Plekhanov (1856-1918) and others, was the first Russian Marxist group. It polemicised against the Narodniks, arguing that Russia is already on the road of capitalist development and that the revolutionary subject can no longer be the peasantry but has to be the emerging working class. It was a cornerstone in the creation of the RSDLP in 1898. Plekhanov, like Vaillant, supported the Entente in the First World War. For this they were condemned as opportunists and chauvinists by internationalists like Lenin and Luxemburg. [translator’s note]

(15) See the article “Jak królowie kończyć powinni” [How Kings Should End], Przedświt, No. 6, 7 and 8, 1885. As for its political level, the article actually parallels this interesting poem, already published in Przedświt of October 1, 1883:

Forwards, forwards, workers!
Hey, quickly take up arms!
Hey, to the flails and stanchions,
To free ourselves from misery!
What a stream of blood will flow,
So what if cannons open fire,
So what if many of us die,
Tortured and in Siberia,
When our sacrifice,
Will not go unrewarded,
When from death and destruction,
The dawn of freedom rises.

(16) “Our Przedświt is always ready to help. At one time, a carpenter will write to us how, in his opinion, carpenters will need to organise after the revolution, at another a shoemaker will write us, at yet another the locksmith will tell us his thoughts. What we do not like, we will respond to.” Przedświt, No. 2, 1885. It is interesting how, in this rush towards preparing the “revolution”, the understanding of the simplest facts of the workers’ movement abroad was lost. The press of foreign trade unions, being in Germany, as everywhere of course, an organ of the day-to-day economic struggle, seemed for Przedświt to be a journalistic school to train the administrators of production of the future regime. “So we see,” they write, “how workers abroad publish professional magazines, with the help of which they prepare themselves to take over the reins of governments and the economy.”

Friday, March 5, 2021


'Alongside the Russian Bolsheviks, the Bulgarian Tesnyaki, and the Dutch Tribunists, the SDKPiL was the only party that emerged out of the Second International with their internationalist credentials intact, and its militants became key proponents for the creation of the Third International.' This sentence could stand being reworded. It seems to want to kill two birds with one stones: 2nd International affiliates that remained internationalist in WW1 + those of them that were 'key proponents for the creation of the Third International'. In doing so, it commits an injustice against other 2nd International parties that regardless of their later relation to the 3rd International, held an internationalist position on the war. (Of which, just to mention one of them, the Serbian Social Democratic Party, which voted against war credits in parliament in 1914.)

Perhaps the Serbian, Romanian, etc., parties can be simply added to the list, or we can say "alongside the likes of" to indicate it's not quite a complete list.