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Rosa Luxemburg and the Libertarian Left

Scott Tucker
Contributor
Scott Tucker is a writer and a democratic socialist. His book of essays, "The Queer Question: Essays on Desire and Democracy," was published by South End Press in 1997. He met Larry Gross in 1975, and they…
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.

Liebknecht was more truly a public figure than Luxemburg, in part because he was elected to public office in both the Landtag of Prussia, a state parliament, and in the national legislature of Germany, the Reichstag; and in part because he played a more visibly public role during the revolution. The fact that Karl Liebknecht was an elected official of the SPD made his denunciation of the First World War resonate throughout Germany from a parliamentary platform. His brave dissent was noted not only by socialists worldwide, including by Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party of the United States, but even by many bourgeois newspapers. He was the son of Wilhelm Liebknecht, who had been one of the friends and biographers of Marx, and also one of the founders of the SPD in 1875, when he led a merger of Marxists with the followers of Ferdinand Lassalle. The origins of the SPD had never skipped a generation for Karl Liebknecht, because he was only a few years older than a party whose leaders sat at the family dinner table. His father was arrested and jailed many times; founded and became editor of Vorwarts (Forward), the leading SPD newspaper in Berlin; and in advanced age remained the most prominent member of the Socialist International. He died on Aug. 7, 1900, and 50,000 people joined the funeral procession in Charlottenburg, a suburb of Berlin. Thus the younger Liebknecht received anti-militarism and socialism as a family legacy. Karl Liebknecht practiced law with his brother Theodor, and defended radicals charged with smuggling illegal socialist literature into Russia.

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.
The emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, had accepted Bismarck as a mentor in his youth. He finally broke from Bismarck’s influence, in part because of their sharpening disagreements over how to handle the SPD. Wilhelm II was a “liberal” only in recognizing that Russian absolutism would not work in Germany, and that a working compromise had to be reached with the parliamentary representatives of the working class. In 1888, Bismarck had introduced a law to have Social Democrats “denaturalized,” or stripped of citizenship, but it was voted down in the Reichstag. Bismarck, looking backward at the Paris Commune, was determined that nothing similar should ever arise in Berlin. The kaiser, however, was looking ahead to the managerial politics of big business even while claiming a divine right to rule. In this respect, Wilhelm II was practicing his own brand of realpolitik, and in 1890 Bismarck resigned under direct pressure from the kaiser. In the same year, the anti-Socialist laws were allowed to lapse, and the SPD gained nearly 20 percent of the vote in national elections. The parliamentary system remained far from democratic, however. Aristocrats and Junkers benefited from a Byzantine “three-tier” voting system in many regions, and industrial magnates had their own proxies in the Reichstag. Women had no right to vote until 1919.

In parliament there were faction fights between the interests of the industrial barons and of the aristocratic landowners. These two clans of the ruling class had, however, long practiced a united front of “Iron and Rye” against the working class. The representatives of Social Democracy, meanwhile, began showing more interest in their own petty bourgeois careers, and less interest in being a tribune of the people. As for the official revolutionary ideology of the SPD, it was still a gospel good for Sabbath days and SPD tracts, but had also become a gilded idol.

This was the political background when Luxemburg first began working with the SPD and finally moved to Berlin in March 1899: a nation only recently unified, still under the legal form of an atavistic imperial government; and the flagship party of the Socialist International, the SPD, already showing fracture lines that would later become open splits. “She was an outsider,” Arendt wrote, “not only because she was and remained a Polish Jew in a country she disliked and a party she came to despise, but also because she was a woman.” In Luxemburg’s own words, she had a temperament capable of “setting a prairie on fire,” but we must admire her composure in striding directly into the great public debates of the SPD and the International. She was resented as a young upstart by male elders with mediocre talents, whereas she commanded respect from her ablest opponents. Already in 1898, she faced the criticism of Georg von Vollmar at an SPD meeting and responded, “Vollmar has bitterly reproached me with trying to preach to older veterans when I am still a young recruit to the movement. … I know I must still earn my epaulets in the German movement; but I want to do it on the left wing, where people struggle against the enemy and not on the right wing, where people seek out compromises with the enemy.” That caused some uproar in the audience, and she continued: “But when Vollmar counters my factual presentations with the argument, ‘You greenhorn, I could be your grandfather,’ that proves to me that his logical arguments are on their last legs.” And there the transcript records laughter, presumably sympathetic. In this “dialectical” manner she was making not only the right friends on the left, but also the right enemies on the right.

A campaign of iconoclasm against the iconic figures and doctrines of the SPD could have been conducted with satirical glee, and from any number of positions from the far right to the far left. For the SPD had become a “state within a state” by building up a party ripe for absorption into bourgeois society, and by sacrificing the theory and practice of working-class struggle against the rule of capital. The SPD, whatever its faults, provided a public forum for a thorough political debate far more useful than idol smashing alone. The famous debate over revisionism within German Social Democracy is remembered as a classic polemical battle over reformist practice and revolutionary ideology. It had been inaugurated earlier between Georg von Vollmar and August Bebel; but this debate remains so fruitful for the whole international socialist movement because it was conducted on such a high level by these two later protagonists, Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg.

Both of them engaged in some ironic courtesies toward each other, but Luxemburg’s polemic against Bernstein was much more sharply antagonistic. She felt something even more important than the future of a formal political party was at stake. Luxemburg was willing (as Bernstein noted) to criticize doctrines she, too, found out of date in Marx, but she was also striving to preserve the dynamic worldview of any serious class-conscious struggle for socialism. That struggle would not occur once and for all in a single stroke of revolutionary lightning, but only through the self-enlightenment of the workers of the whole world. (After her death, Bernstein noted that he had always felt a “secret tenderness” toward Luxemburg, even though she had gone over to the camp of “illusionists,” meaning those willing to use “a policy of force.”)

As Arendt noted, “This blind alley of the German Socialist movement could be analyzed correctly from opposing points of view. …” Arendt noted that the antagonistic views were not simply theoretical or economic. The moral foundation and framework of socialism were also in question, though socialists were reluctant to moralize. This was especially true of Marxists proud of their “scientific” credentials. From 1896 to 1898, Bernstein (who had been an exile in Switzerland and Britain under the anti-Socialist laws) wrote a series of articles for the party press titled “Problems of Socialism,” and in 1899 his book “Prerequisites of Socialism” was published. In English this book is better known as “Evolutionary Socialism.” From 1898 to 1900, Luxemburg responded to Bernstein in a series of articles collected under the title “Social Reform or Revolution.” In a speech she made to the SPD Stuttgart Congress on Oct. 4, 1898, she summarized the practical import of the theoretical battle:

“And then the well-known statement [by Bernstein] in the Neue Zeit [New Age]: ‘The final goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me; the movement is everything!’… The conquest of political power remains the final goal and that final goal remains the soul of the struggle. The working class cannot take the decadent position of the philosophers: ‘The final goal is nothing to me, the movement is everything.’ No, on the contrary, without relating the movement to the final goal, the movement as an end in itself is nothing to me, the final goal is everything.”

No good cause is served by aggrandizing the reputation of Luxemburg, who stood both firm and fallible in life, or by the critical annihilation of Bernstein, an eminently decent man. Both Bernstein and Luxemburg paid attention to reality, and came to opposite conclusions about the relation between reforms and revolution. But Arendt was also surely correct in noting that one of Bernstein’s main convictions was “shamefully hidden in a footnote” of his book. In Bernstein’s own words, “I feel no hesitation in declaring that I consider the middle class—not excepting the German—in their bulk to be still fairly healthy, not only economically, but also morally.” Speaking of “the revolutionists from the East who led the attack on Bernstein—Plekhanov, Parvus, and Rosa Luxemburg,” Arendt wrote, “The guests from Eastern Europe were the only ones who not merely ‘believed’ in revolution as a theoretical necessity but wished to do something about it, precisely because they considered society as it was to be unbearable on moral grounds, on the grounds of justice.”

Though less famous, Luxemburg’s later criticism of the “orthodox” Marxism of Karl Kautsky, and of his “strategy of attrition,” was perhaps even more important. In this case, she was challenging a man who was regarded even by Russian revolutionaries as a venerable oracle of Marxist theory, and who had at first welcomed Luxemburg as a polemical ally against Bernstein. As Lenin and Trotsky later acknowledged, Luxemburg was the first to realize that Kautsky’s conception of Marxism was to a high degree in practical agreement with reformism, however much it was framed within a formally revolutionary theory. Already in 1906, Luxemburg defended and promoted the general strike. Kautsky argued against her views, yet they remained friends at this time. In the party press, their argument took on greater polemical heat. Kautsky also found Luxemburg’s calls for a German republic untimely. The general strike may be regarded as the more radical position, and the call for a republic as the more conservative: but that is a conventional view in retrospect. Fighting for a socialist republic by cumulative and class-conscious actions, including a general strike, is a thoroughly radical view, both then and now.
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.
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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