The life of the influential revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg provides inspiration and lessons for today, writes Judy Cox
Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1871, the year in which the poor of Paris rose up and established the Paris Commune, a new, radically democratic system of government. Karl Marx wrote that the Communards were, ‘storming the heavens’. Some 20 years later, Rosa Luxemburg’s opponents sneered at her ‘heaven storming theories’. I am sure that she would have accepted it as a compliment.
Rosa Luxemburg had to overcome many obstacles to claim her place as one of the great figures of the socialist movement. As a woman Luxemburg faced legal discrimination and the general oppression, which meant all too few women became active within the socialist movement. Luxemburg was born in Russian-occupied Poland where the Polish language was banned and socialists were persecuted. As a revolutionary schoolgirl, she worked alongside activists who were imprisoned and even executed. Luxemburg grew up in a world where anti-Semitism shaped daily life, and in the time and place where the term ‘pogrom’ developed to describe regular outbreaks of violence against Jewish communities.
Luxemburg broke free from these interlocking systems of oppression because of her personal courage and her commitment to Marxism. She never once wavered from her confidence in the ability of the working class to liberate society. She was a writer, a theoretician, an orator and an organiser who was imprisoned many times – the living embodiment of the unity of theory and practise.
Luxemburg arrived in Germany in 1898 determined to play a full role in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). The SPD was the first mass workers’ party and was growing in size and influence, winning millions of votes and attracting one million members. With 90 daily papers and numerous sports and leisure clubs, the SPD was more a way of life than a political party. This huge organisation was committed to Marxism and led by the undisputed leaders of world socialism. If there was ever going to be an electoral road to socialism, the SPD was in the best position to find it.
However, within the SPD there was a growing bureaucracy; agitators became administrators. A layer within the party began to focus exclusively on electoral campaigns and to compromise socialist principles in order to maximise electoral gains. In 1898, the very year of Luxemburg’s arrival in Berlin, a leading figure in the SPD expressed this revision of Marxism. In his book, Evolutionary Socialism, Eduard Bernstein argued that capitalism had changed since Marx’s day and crises and class struggle were a thing of the past. As a result, the party should dispense with its outdated revolutionary phrases and focus on winning elections.
Rosa Luxemburg was a foreigner, a woman and only in her mid-20s when she published her riposte to Bernstein. In her pamphlet Reform or Social Revolution, Luxemburg explained how superficial and temporary changes to the economy did not constitute a fundamental break from the past. Socialists cannot, Luxemburg argued, choose between reform and revolution as if they were choosing different sausages from the buffet of history:
‘Those who declare themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal’.
To be effective, the fight for reforms should not be severed from the final goal of socialism. Rather, day-to-day campaigns to improve life were the means by which workers could develop the confidence and organisation necessary for more fundamental change.
If voting alone could not challenge the system, how could working class people challenge the system? In 1905, workers across the Russian Empire provided an answer. In January peaceful demonstrators were gunned down in St Petersburg. Outrage at the massacre expressed itself in mutinies, riots and strikes. A mass strike movement swept across the Russian Empire and Warsaw was at its heart. Rosa Luxemburg smuggled herself into Poland to take part in the revolution, and to learn from it and to explain its significance. She wrote how mass strikes broke down artificial divisions between political and economic struggles. ‘The economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilization of the soil for the economic struggle’.
Mass strikes could win reforms such as the eight-hour day or the right to vote but more important to Luxemburg was the effect of striking on those who took part:
‘The most precious thing, because the most lasting, in this rapid ebb and flow of the wave is its mental sediment: the intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat’.
Luxemburg delighted in the power and creativity demonstrated by the striking workers and contrasted it with the narrow conservatism of their trade union leaders. The revolutions of the past had depended on street fighting. Those of the future would depend on the activity of the working class.
One of the major themes of Rosa Luxemburg’s life was her opposition to militarism and imperialism. She helped to develop a Marxist theory of imperialism, in which competition between major capitalist powers inevitably engulfed all non-capitalist societies. The early 20th century saw imperialist rivalries threaten to break out into war. The SPD was committed to unleashing the power of the working class to oppose imperialist war. The SPD was a member of an international organisation of socialist parties that had made similar commitments. These pledges held good, right up to the moment in August 1914 when the First World War began. One by one Europe’s socialist parties fell in behind their own ruling classes, to the horror of revolutionaries such as Luxemburg.
Luxemburg gathered together small numbers of comrades who were principled enough to stand against the tide of jingoism. By 1916 Luxemburg was in prison and smuggling powerful anti-war writings out of her cell. Mass murder, Luxemburg wrote, had become monotonous.
‘Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands. Not as a we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics-as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity-so it appears in all its hideous nakedness’.
Opposition to the miseries of war was growing and more people were looking to the ideas put forward by Luxemburg and her comrade Karl Liebknecht.
In 1917 the Russian Revolution had a huge impact on German workers. In November 1918, the German navy mutinied and riots and strikes erupted across Germany. The German ruling class was devastated by defeat and faced a revolt by soldiers, sailors and workers. In an open contest, it is possible that the workers could have won. But it was not an open contest. The leaders of the SPD were eager to help preserve the system in return for the trappings of office. They were the only ones who could form a credible government, who could declare that the King and his Generals had been driven out, who could put themselves at the head of the sailors’ and workers’ councils to convince them that their revolution was already victorious because a socialist government was in office.
Desperate to stay connected to the masses, Luxemburg had refused to break from the SPD. Bernstein and his circle had woken to the growing hatred of war and broken away in 1917, forming the Independent Socialists. Luxemburg joined them, but not until the revolution was already in motion did she and Liebknecht form the German Communist Party in January 1919.
The new party was immediately plunged into an uprising in Berlin, which they were neither powerful enough to lead decisively, nor powerful enough to hold back until the revolutionary feeling was more widespread. Germany’s old rulers were not so indecisive. They seized every opportunity to propel the SPD into helping them derail the revolution. SPD leader Gustav Noske established the paramilitary Freikorps, armed them and pointed them at Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. They were murdered at the instigation of men they had campaigned alongside for decades.
The SPD leadership believed they could use the military to re-establish order but it was only revolution which was capable of halting the military’s ambitions. The hated General Ludendorff was forced into exile in 1918 by the SPD government. He wrote to his wife, ‘It would be the greatest stupidity for the revolutionaries to allow us all to remain alive. Why, if every I come to power again there will be no pardon. Then, with an easy conscience, I would have Ebert, Scheidemann and Co hanged and watch them dangle’.
The SPD did allow him to remain alive and it allowed his troops to flourish. When Ludendorff did return to Germany he was marching alongside Adolf Hitler. The SPD did not find a tranquil, calmer route to socialism – on the contrary it paved the way for the most grotesque counterrevolution ever seen. Gustav Noske was himself interned in a concentration camp in 1944.
Had Rosa Luxemburg’s arguments prevailed in January 1919, had she had a strong organisation capable of acting decisively, the Berlin workers would have held back until workers across Germany were ready to rise up. The Russian Revolution would not have been left isolated to face down the ‘white armies’ alone. A revolution in Germany would have meant defeat for the Freikorps and all the embittered monarchists and militarists who later coalesced around the Nazi Party.
Rosa Luxemburg understood the need for revolutionary organisation. She helped to establish the socialist party of Poland as well as the Communist Party of Germany. However, her faith in the power of the working class led her to underestimate the extent to which reformist ideas could regenerate even in the heat of revolution. Each generation must draw their own lessons from Luxemburg’s life and death, but this time, we have her ideas and actions to help us.
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