Chris Hedges gave this talk on revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg on Friday at the Left Forum in New York City.
On the night of Jan. 15, 1919, a group of the Freikorps—hastily formed militias made up mostly of right-wing veterans of World War I—escorted Rosa Luxemburg, a petite, 50-year-old with a slight limp, to the Eden Hotel in Berlin, the headquarters of the Guards Cavalry Rifle Division.
“Are you Frau Rosa Luxemburg?” Capt. Waldemar Pabst asked when she arrived at his office upstairs.
“You decide for yourself,” she answered.
“According to the photograph, you must be,” he said.
“If you say so,” she said softly.
Pabst told her she would be taken to Moabit Prison. On the way out of the hotel, a waiting crowd, which had shouted insults like “whore” as she was brought in under arrest, whistled and spat. A soldier, Otto Runge, was allegedly paid 50 marks to be the first to hit her. Shouting, “She’s not getting out alive,” he slammed the butt of his rifle into the back of her head. Luxemburg collapsed. Blood poured from her nose and mouth. Runge struck a second time. Someone said, “That’s enough.” Soldiers dragged Luxemburg to a waiting car. One of her shoes was left behind. A soldier hit her again. As the car sped away, Lt. Kurt Vogel fired his pistol into her head. The soldiers tossed Luxemburg’s corpse into the Landwehr Canal.
Karl Leibknecht, who had coaxed a reluctant Luxemburg into an uprising she knew was almost certainly doomed, had been executed a few moments before. The Spartacus Revolt was crushed. It was the birth of German fascism.
The killers, like the police who murder unarmed people of color in the streets of American cities, were tried in a court—in this case, a military court—that issued tepid reprimands. The state had no intention of punishing the assassins. They had done what the state required.
The ruling Social Democratic Party of Germany created the Freikorps, which became the antecedent to the Nazi Party. It ordered the militias and the military to crush resistance when it felt threatened from the left. Luxemburg’s murder illustrated the ultimate loyalties of liberal elites in a capitalist society: When threatened from the left, when the face of socialism showed itself in the streets, elites would—and will—make alliances with the most retrograde elements of society, including fascists, to crush the aspirations of the working class.
Liberalism, which Luxemburg called by its more appropriate name—“opportunism”—is an integral component of capitalism. When the citizens grow restive, it will soften and decry capitalism’s excesses. But capitalism, Luxemburg argued, is an enemy that can never be appeased. Liberal reforms are used to stymie resistance and then later, when things grow quiet, are revoked on the inevitable road to capitalist slavery. The last century of labor struggles in the United States provides a case study for proof of Luxemburg’s observation.
The political, cultural and judicial system in a capitalist state is centered around the protection of property rights. And, as Adam Smith pointed out, when civil government “is instituted for the security of property, [it] is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” The capitalist system is gamed from the start. And this makes Luxemburg extremely relevant as corporate capital, now freed from all constraints, reconfigures our global economy, including the United States’, into a ruthless form of neofeudalism.
Wage slavery and employment are not determined by law but by the imperatives of the market. The market forces workers to fall to their knees before the dictates of global profit. This imperative can never be corrected by legal or legislative reform.
Democracy, in this late stage of capitalism, has been replaced with a system of legalized bribery. All branches of government, including the courts, along with the systems of entertainment and news, are wholly owned subsidiaries of the corporate state. Electoral politics are elaborate puppet shows. Wall Street and the militarists, whether Trump or Clinton, win.
“Capitalist accumulation requires for its movement to be surrounded by non-capitalist areas,” Luxemburg wrote. And capitalism “can continue only so long as it is provided with such a milieu.”
Capitalism searches the globe to exploit cheap, unorganized labor and pillages natural resources. It buys off or overthrows local elites. It blocks the ability of the developing world to become self-sufficient.
Meanwhile, workers in the industrialized world, stripped of well-paying jobs, benefits and legal protections, are pushed into debt peonage, forced to borrow to survive, which further enriches global speculators.
An economy built on credit, Luxemburg foresaw, transforms a regular series of small economic crises into an irregular series of large economic crises—hence two major financial dislocations to the U.S. economy in the early part of the 21st century—the dot-com collapse of 2000 and the global meltdown of 2008. And we are barreling toward another. The end result, at home and abroad, is serfdom.
Luxemburg, in another understanding important to those caught up in the pressures of a single election cycle, viewed electoral campaigns, like union organizing, as a process of educating the public about the nature of capitalism. These activities, divorced from “revolutionary consciousness”—from the ultimate goal of overthrowing capitalism—were, she said, “a labor of Sisyphus.”
We who seek to build radical third-party movements must recognize that it is not about taking power now. It is about taking power, at best, a decade from now. Revolutions, Luxemburg reminded us, take time.
In an understanding that eludes many Bernie Sanders supporters, Luxemburg also grasped that socialism and imperialism were incompatible. She would have excoriated Sanders’ ostrichlike refusal to confront American imperialism. Imperialism, she understood, not only empowers a war machine and enriches arms merchants and global capitalists. It is accompanied by a poisonous ideology—what social critic Dwight Macdonald called the “psychosis of permanent war”—that makes socialism impossible.