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Rosa Luxemburg and the Libertarian Left
Posted on Jan 14, 2011
By Scott Tucker
In fact, the heads of Liebknecht and Luxemburg were hammered by a working-class soldier wielding a rifle butt, before they were both finished off with bullets. In the wake of war, some regiments of troops followed orders and turned their guns upon workers; other remnants were swept up by aristocratic officers and formed the Freikorps. There has been no lack of critics who find both rough and poetic justice in their murders. Moralizing hacks can be found in any profession, so we can set aside the less talented journalists and academics, and instead quote a founder of the field of sociology, Max Weber. He began a speaking tour in early January 1919 while the revolution was still an infant in the cradle, and while Luxemburg and Liebknecht still fought as revolutionaries for the socialist republic. Weber said, “Liebknecht belongs in the madhouse and Luxemburg in the zoo.” After their murders, Weber noted that Luxemburg had called upon “the street” and had been trampled under by the mob. In Weber’s view, however, working-class politics were hardly distinguished from mob rule and the end of all politics, unless kept under the tight managerial rein of a ruling elite. Marianne Weber, his wife, recounted in “Max Weber: A Biography” these words of her husband to Gen. Erich Ludendorff: “In a democracy the people choose a leader whom they trust. Then the chosen man says, ‘Now shut your mouths and obey me.’ The people and the parties are no longer free to interfere in the leader’s business.”
Others have delivered a similar moral and historical verdict upon Luxemburg and her comrades, and upon all the armed rebel workers of the German revolution. These moralists, including some notable historians, balance the scales of justice between revolution and counterrevolution so that all who live by the sword deserve to die by the sword. The duplicity and hypocrisy of that verdict is plain enough, precisely as a general rule of bourgeois society. A person of faith who would rather die than wield weapons against any other person may command respect, however much we disagree and are inclined to fight for our lives. But for the sake of this argument, let us set aside the honorable witness of pacifists. That is exactly what President Barack Obama did when he gave his speech in acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama praised the gospel of peace, and “the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.” He missed barely a breath when he went on to say, “I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats made to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.”
Leon Trotsky once wrote a polemic on this very subject titled “Their Morals and Ours.” Without taking quite his line, the cases of Liebknecht and Luxemburg force us to question the common ground that remains between their morals and ours, to the degree traditional morality preserves a tradition of public freedom. If we raise the question of public freedom founded upon common morals, then all moral ground begins to quake beneath us, and is riven down to the depths. The question does have an economic dimension, and not for socialists alone. Obama’s Nobel speech contained many statements any person of good will could defend, and yet from first word to last it was a rhetorical bridge thrown over both national and global class divisions. For make no mistake: An imperial power never defines “evil” within an ideological Garden of Eden, but only and always within the world as it is.
Truly, the moral dilemma of violence cannot be solved once and for all by any single religious or political creed. But the dilemma must at least be stated honestly, and we should not let newspaper columnists and career politicians regiment us into the usual ranks and uniforms. We must raise the question of violence and class struggle in such a way that it remains open, so long as armed states and ruling classes exist. To avoid misunderstanding, or deliberate distortion, let’s be clear here that fighting for socialism is never a good enough cause to build police states and to fill mass graves with political opponents. Luxemburg deserves credit as a revolutionary socialist for daring to raise moral and political objections to the theory and practice of Lenin both before and after his party took power in Russia. Lenin confirmed some of her doubts and fears, but only others would be able to document Stalin’s systematic lies and brutality, which would exceed anything she had dared to imagine under a socialist regime.
During most of her life, Luxemburg was active on the left wing of the international socialist movement, a period in which Social Democracy was the general term for partisan Marxism. War and revolution divided the international movement of working-class emancipation into two large opposing partisan camps of socialists and communists, a fact which had fateful consequences during the rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany. In the usual morality tale, the communists bear the much greater burden of blame for the division of the German left and the rise of German fascism. But in that case, who bears the greater burden of blame for collaboration with German nationalism, militarism and imperialism—in short, with the deadly and official politics of class collaboration of that era?
To say that the German Communist Party took marching orders from Moscow very soon after the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht is both true and too simple, and in any case does not answer the previous question. Such a statement may even be a device to keep that question forever in the unusable past, as opposed to repeating the version of German history of more utilitarian value for the present forms of nationalism, militarism,and imperialism—and, in fact, of direct utility for the deadly and official politics of class collaboration of our own era. If we “rescue” the life and work of Luxemburg from the crucible and molten elements of her era, we are still cast into the crucible of our own—with plenty of political heat, to be sure, but without the light and guidance that the past can still bring to the present.
After World War II, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were portrayed on East German postage stamps, and various streets, monuments and factories bore their names; yet neither the German Communist Party nor the German Democratic Republic (which was neither democratic nor a republic) ever published the complete works of Luxemburg, as Lenin had strongly recommended after her death. Each year in January, their deaths are still commemorated by a march of nearly all factions and parties of the German left to their graves in Berlin.
In all the years since her death, Luxemburg’s words (and not only her views on the Russian revolution) have been drafted into some polemical battles far removed from the cause of revolutionary socialism; or else the very person of Luxemburg has been fitted into some partisan uniforms that are not her style at all. There is still a tug of war over the legacy of Luxemburg, whether she is recruited to the cause of democratic socialism, or to the cause of Leninism and Trotskyism. In the first case, her thorough (and ferocious) critique of the “orthodox” Social Democrats of her time is often swept under the carpet; and in the second case, Lenin and Trotsky are allowed to “correct” her stubborn errors, a job they did honorably in their own time but which should hardly remain the last word. Either way, she then becomes a front-parlor specimen of taxidermy, a stuffed owl under a bell jar.
George Lichtheim, the historian, called Luxemburg “a really hopeless case,” and he was one of many who took that view. As Arendt wrote, “Every New Left movement, when its moment came to change into the Old Left—usually when its members reached the age of forty—promptly buried its enthusiasm for Rosa Luxemburg together with the dreams of youth; and since they had usually not bothered to read, let alone understand, what she had to say they found it easy to dismiss her with all the patronizing philistinism of their newly acquired status.”
Those who prefer to reduce Luxemburg’s work to slogans will not pay much attention to the particular case she made for a socialist republic. She insisted that the German and Russian socialists must include a “republican program” among their political demands, and this made other leading comrades wary, whether they stood on the revolutionary left like Lenin, or in the German orthodox mainstream like Kautsky. Lenin declared his admiration for the “Junius Brochure” at a time when he still remained unaware Luxemburg was the author. (As Luxemburg had chosen the pseudonym Junius, that became the popular title of her illegal pamphlet “The Crisis in German Social Democracy,” begun in prison in February 1915 but not published until April 1916.) Lenin immediately raised the criticism, however, that daring to proclaim “the program of a republic … [means] in practice to proclaim the revolution—with an incorrect revolutionary program.” As Arendt noted, “Well, a year later the Russian Revolution broke out without any ‘program’ whatsoever, and its first achievement was the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic, and the same was to happen in Germany and Austria.” Despite the criticism directed at Luxemburg on this point from both reformist and revolutionary socialists, her foresight was borne out by events. Poland gained national independence, but the formal republic quickly passed under the dictatorship of Josef Pilsudski, who had been a member of the nationalist right wing of the Polish Socialist Party. So in this particular, too, Luxemburg’s deep misgivings about Polish nationalism proved prescient. Arendt wrote, “It is indeed the republican question rather than the national one which separated her most decisively from all others. Here she was completely alone, as she was alone, though less obviously so, in her stress on the absolute necessity of not only individual but public freedom under all circumstances.”
Whatever one makes of the contradictions of the classical republican tradition and of the European Enlightenment, Luxemburg stood upon that historical ground even as she advanced the cause of socialism. This is why her most famous words can still be found emblazoned on banners in public marches and protests around the world, whenever and wherever the democratic left gathers in earnest. Real democracy in economic life would require, Luxemburg argued, the self-emancipation of the working class: willing to gain and defend reforms, to be sure, but also guided by the revolutionary goal of socialism. Her life spanned nearly 50 years of European Social Democracy, and the first years of Soviet communism. Born in the same year as the Paris Commune, Luxemburg became the most thorough early critic of revisionism within the socialist movement; she also turned her analytical skills against the official claim of Marxist orthodoxy among German Social Democrats; and in her final years she forecast the dangers inherent in Lenin’s conception of a revolutionary vanguard party, including the potential deformation of the Russian revolution.
We are free to question her premises, and her conclusions, and every dash or comma between. We do no favors to her memory or to the cause of socialism, however, if we simply turn Luxemburg’s work into another form of idealist philosophy. Then why bother returning to her work at all? Because “the unity of theory and practice” also requires translation to our own time and world, and the critical power of her mind is still contagious. Though her books have settled under the inevitable layer of historical ash, the glowing embers only need stirring by living breath and study. This will come in due course in our own era of class struggles and imperial rivalries, as a new generation of readers find their way to her work, and possibly to the cause of socialism.
Footnote: Arendt’s essay was prompted by the publication of a two-volume biography by J. P. Nettl titled “Rosa Luxemburg,” published by Oxford University Press in 1966. An abridged version (lacking the photographs) was published simultaneously by Schocken Books, and Arendt’s essay also served in that edition as the introduction. All of Luxemburg’s most important works and many of her articles have been available in English translations of varying quality, but these books are not always easy to find. Of the Luxemburg sources online, the following website is the best for current scholarship in both German and English: www.rosalux.de/english/foundation. There is also a Luxemburg archive online, www.marxists.org/, a fine effort, though not all the works are complete; and thorough notes and scholarship would still be welcome. There have always been gaps, knots and puzzles in the published work of Luxemburg. We now have the good news that her “Complete Works” are due to be published in 14 volumes by Verso. The inaugural volume will be the most complete collection of her letters now available in English. One likely knock-on effect of this brave publishing venture is that the best out-of-print books related to Luxemburg and to the German revolution may also find their way into print again. Finally, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is a German political foundation that promotes democratic socialism worldwide. Click here to visit the site.
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