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Rosa Luxemburg and the Libertarian Left
Posted on Jan 14, 2011
By Scott Tucker
In an article of 1910, Luxemburg noted that Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program made specific mention of its omission of “a democratic republic,” and the only reason Marx urged caution in promoting a republic in Germany was (in Luxemburg’s words) “the advancing shadow of the oncoming Anti-Socialist Law.” Marx even pointed out the absurdity, in such circumstances, “of demanding things which only make sense in a democratic republic, from a state which is nothing but a military despotism embellished with parliamentary forms. …” But the Anti-Socialist Law had lapsed in 1890, so Luxemburg demanded that Kautsky and other SPD leaders proceed with less caution and more courage. Otherwise the forces of reaction would continue making parliamentary provocations in preparation for practical measures against the working class. The ruling class was certainly class conscious, and able to unify its theory and practice. Therefore Luxemburg urged the leaders of the SPD to raise the demand for a republic as “the watchword of class struggle,” in both theory and practice, in labor strikes, in street protests and in electoral campaigns.
Luxemburg also quoted Engels’ critique of the Erfurt Program of 1891: “The draft’s demands have one great flaw. What actually should have been said is not there. … First: If anything is certain, it is this: that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the great French Revolution has already shown.” In this respect, Luxemburg was hardly a “romantic” or a “Blanquist” conspirator, but a revolutionary republican in the tradition of Marx and Engels. She sharpened and focused the agitation for a republic by defending specific forms of working-class struggle, including councils of workers and the general strike.
By 1910, Luxemburg broke off her friendship with Karl Kautsky, while her friendship with his wife, Luise, deepened through conversation and correspondence. After Luxemburg’s death, Luise Kautsky published a volume of Luxemburg’s letters with a preface that spelled out the political parting of ways very clearly:
“In keeping with her fiery, inspiring personality, she soon rallied about her a following from the ranks of the radical elements within the socialist party, who in every way tried to hasten the tempo of revolutionary development. It became evident soon that a left and a right wing were forming in the group thus far associated with Kautsky. Or, to put it more concisely, Rosa and her followers now constituted the extreme left wing of the German movement. Kautsky was thus forced into the center, while the right wing retained its revisionist-reformist character unchanged. From now on Rosa no longer fought side by side with Kautsky, as in former years, but began to go her own way politically.”
Workers would need a revolutionary worldview, not just in good seasons when reforms seem to drop into their hands like plums, but also when they are exposed to a colder climate and all the hailstones of reaction beat on their heads. That is why Luxemburg fought so hard against the theoretical disarmament of the working class. And in both senses: namely, against disarming the socialist movement of theory; but also against any political theory premised upon the unilateral disarmament of the working class, against one-sided proletarian pacifism when faced with ruling-class assault. A working-class movement would require the best theory, gained first and foremost through its own political practice. This is what mattered first and foremost to Luxemburg, not theory as such, but the unity of theory and practice. What does theoretical knowledge mean in this case? Theory is the practical memory of the working-class movement, summing up the past at each present moment of class struggle, and directed toward the future. In this sense, Luxemburg was willing to quote Ferdinand Lassalle—a problematic figure in the history of socialism—to defend her conception of “scientific” socialism in her “Social Reform or Revolution”:
“No coarser insult, no baser defamation, can be thrown against the workers than the remark: ‘Theoretical controversies are only for intellectuals.’ Lassalle once said: ‘Only when science and the workers, these opposed poles of society, become one will they crush in their arms of steel all obstacles to culture.’ The entire strength of the modern labor movement rests on theoretical knowledge.”
In any open class struggle, the working class would hold the moral right to respond to ruling-class force, and would thus require a people’s militia. Luxemburg was not a military strategist, but she was impatient with the “peace utopias” of idealists, and her position was by no means ultraleft. In this matter she was well within one of the orthodox currents, if not quite the mainstream Marxism, of her time. Marx and Engels had called for a people’s militia; so had the founders of the German Social Democrats, including Wilhelm Liebknecht; so had a second generation of Social Democrats, including Karl Liebknecht. Socialists demanded a people’s militia precisely in opposition to militarism—and in opposition to the standing armies and police power of a ruling class far more willing to use brute force than workers themselves, as the whole history of class struggles had proven. War against war—that had been a slogan long familiar to socialists, but only a radical minority within German Social Democracy made the old slogan a policy for action during World War I. Some were expelled from the SPD, and others left of their own free will. Some were too disillusioned and demoralized to remain socialists at all. The revolutionaries sought to build socialism on a firmer foundation.
The charge of political romanticism has been leveled at Liebknecht and Luxemburg by their critics, a charge that may stick to Liebknecht at some brief junctures of the revolution, but barely grazes the skin of Luxemburg. During the revolution, Liebknecht was too eager to find in each ripple a cresting wave. After one of his ventures, the two of them had a serious argument in which Luxemburg pressed this pointed question: “Karl, is that our program?” If Luxemburg had truly been a dogmatic believer in spontaneity, she would never have bothered to remind Liebknecht of partisan discipline. In fairness to Liebknecht, he was more often on the front lines in the streets and at public meetings, and thus bore the greater risk and burden of action. In their division of labor during the revolution, Luxemburg was the chief editor of Die Rote Fahne, The Red Banner, and sometimes the chief writer as well. This work was also dangerous. Indeed, a woman comrade mistaken for Luxemburg had been roughed up during a raid on the newspaper, and Luxemburg was finally persuaded that she made too easy a target by continuing to work in the offices.
Luxemburg could be fierce in polemics, but with few exceptions she restrained her rhetoric within classical bounds. Nevertheless, she lost not only her temper but her taste in the programmatic piece she wrote two weeks before the founding of the Communist Party, “What Does Spartacus Want?” published in The Red Banner on Dec. 14, 1918. In defining once again “the dictatorship of the proletariat” as fighting spirit and as the class-conscious extension of democracy, she summoned up this vision: “… the million-headed mass seizes the entire power of the state in its calloused fist, like the god Thor his hammer, using it to smash the head of the ruling classes. …” A Teutonic weapon would be turned at long last against a Teutonic state, and Prussian militarism would meet its historic match in proletarian power. As a practical measure against the counterrevolution (which she expected with due realism), she proposed disarming the entire police force, all officers and nonproletarian soldiers, and all members of the ruling class. The workers’ and soldiers’ councils would confiscate any necessary weapons to form a workers’ militia, and a Red Guard within the militia would be on high alert. The other programmatic demands were far less defensive, and concerned the practical work and formation of a new socialist order. The council system was to be federal, as this demand suggests: “Election of delegates to the workers’s and soldiers’ councils in the entire country to the central council of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, which is to elect the executive council as the highest organ of the legislative and executive power.” The right of recall of representatives in regular terms was also proposed.
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