Rosa Luxemburg and the Libertarian Left
Posted on Jan 14, 2011
By Scott Tucker
“Freedom,” Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “is always freedom for those who think differently.” Those are certainly her most famous words, but they must not be mistaken for a general piety of liberalism. For they are drawn from a comradely piece of criticism she directed at Lenin and his party in the wake of the 1917 revolution in Russia, written while serving a sentence in prison for her opposition to German militarism and World War I. Whatever our own political views may be, we might honor her memory with a closer reading of her words, and a sober consideration of her circumstances. As a young man, I was introduced to the work of Luxemburg when I read Hannah Arendt’s collection of essays, “Men in Dark Times” [see footnote at end of this article]. The question Arendt raised in her essay on Luxemburg is straightforward enough, if we keep in mind the quality of all refracted light: “Will history look different if seen through the prism of her life and work?”
Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were co-founders of the German Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) on the eve of 1919, and spent the last weeks of their lives in the cross currents of revolution and counterrevolution. They hoped that the German revolution would save the Russian revolution from isolation, and even raise the revolutionary tide throughout Europe and the world. There were indeed serious labor struggles throughout Europe, and the formation of communist parties throughout the world; but the tide of revolution receded, and in Germany the revolutionary left was crushed by a close collaboration between the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party (Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) and ultranationalist forces on the right.
Those events even underscore Luxemburg’s conviction that no group of revolutionaries, however forward thinking, simply “makes” a revolution from scratch. We make our own history, but not just as we please. That was Marx’s view, and Luxemburg’s as well. The bourgeois press soon proclaimed in banner headlines: “Order Reigns in Berlin!” On Jan. 15, 1919, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested and murdered.
In late 1918, Luxemburg and Liebknecht had been released from prison, and thrown headlong into the storm of the German revolution. The revolution had begun without them, a fact that remained like a knot in the wood, despite all the varnishing of their reputations under the later Stalinist regime in East Germany. Their more idealistic admirers on the left may forget this fact even today. Their stature as moral witnesses and political dissenters is not reduced if they are restored to human scale as figures in a landscape already overtaken by rising winds and lightning. The timeline of events must be understood, and while some of these events must be recounted as single beads strung on a single cord, the reality was more like many streams rushing into a great river.
Lenin on the way to the Finland Station in Petrograd was also on his way to a revolution in progress, but if we are keeping a list of “successful” revolutions then we see the difference in historical stature at once. After all, Lenin and his party rose to power in a new regime. The seizure of state power is among the common, if cruder, measures of a revolution. Unlike Luxemburg, Lenin was willing to employ terror in securing and maintaining power. By that measure of success, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were abject failures as revolutionaries, and themselves victims of counterrevolutionary terror. Though they are sometimes called “leaders of the German Revolution,” that claim is too grandiose. They were first and foremost leaders of their own followers, but there were times when their influence extended well beyond the political groups they led and founded. Both were popular speakers at rallies and demonstrations, and both had periods of public prominence. As a woman, Luxemburg had to conduct her public battles outside the realm of electoral politics, through socialist journals, speeches in streets and public halls, and meetings of the Socialist International. Yet her real work was often solitary, the work of thinking and writing, whether in freedom or in prison. She thought the risk of prison must be taken in stride by any socialist, and she tried to face the risk of death without flinching.
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August Bebel, another SPD founder, had been an apprentice carpenter in his youth, and later a master turner and button maker. He became a Marxist after meeting Wilhelm Liebknecht, and went on to write one of the classic works on women and labor, “Women and Socialism,” a book that caused sharp debate even within the socialist movement because the institution of marriage was treated in an unsentimental historical manner. (A similar treatment of marriage is found in Friedrich Engels’ book “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State,” and quite briefly even in “The Communist Manifesto” of Marx and Engels of 1848.) Both the elder Liebknecht and Bebel were elected to the Reichstag, and they were the only members who did not vote for the military subsidy required to wage war with France in 1870. Wilhelm Liebknecht wrote articles in which he called upon the workers of France and Germany to fight the enemy at home, namely their own respective ruling classes. In 1872, Liebknecht and Bebel were tried for treason and sentenced to Festungshaft, imprisonment in a fortress.
The so-called Franco-Prussian War (in France sometimes called the 1870 War) was one of the signal campaigns led by Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck of Prussia to extend Prussian militarism as a ruling power over all German states and principalities. War thus became one means to forge the unity of Germany, though Bismarck himself would never have spelled out such a policy in public. Germany won the 1870-71 war with France and annexed the region of Alsace-Lorraine; the region was returned to France after World War I. The Treaty of Frankfurt was signed on May 10, 1871, during the period of the Paris Commune.
Bismarck was the first chancellor of the German empire, and the term realpolitik is linked to his name. He was a Protestant of Pietist persuasion, though he plainly disregarded currents of Pietist pacifism. Bismarck was a monarchist, in the sense that he preferred to move monarchs like chess pieces. He was also a pioneer of limited aspects of the welfare state, seeking to annex even that terrain away from German socialists. He sometimes exercised heavy veto power over the Reichstag. The Anti-Catholic and Anti-Socialist Laws engineered by Bismarck in the 1870s and 1880s involved serious police abuses and restrictions of civil liberties. The anti-Catholic laws were part of a Kulturkampf (culture struggle) that had the zealous support of many German liberals, though the campaign finally strengthened the Centre Party of the Catholics. Nor did the Anti-Socialist Law prevent the steady electoral rise of the Social Democrats, though their political meetings were officially outlawed, their literature often had to be printed outside Germany, and their Reichstag candidates had to campaign as ostensible independents. German press restrictions did permit newspapers to report the Reichstag speeches of Social Democrats.
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