large crowd with banners of Luxembourg and Liebknecht Working people on the streets of Berlin to remember Luxembourg and Liebknecht, January 1978. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One hundred years on from the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, their revolution still breathes, writes Evan Sedgwick-Jell

‘The revolution will proclaim: I was, I am, I will be’
Rosa Luxemburg

Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International acts as a symbol for many on the left for  the still to be realised promises of communism. When in November 1918, revolution broke out in Germany among its war-weary masses, Lenin remarked that were this successful, it would be taken as read that the headquarters of the Third International would be moved to Berlin; far more obviously metropolitan than Moscow or Leningrad. 

Not only that the structure was never built, but also that it was never built in Berlin, confronts us with a double absence of which we are reminded on the centenary of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht; the radical promises of a communism  beyond what the USSR became and the as-of-yet-unsuccessful 1918/1919 German revolutionary movement.

History and remembrance can often act as the enemy of our thinking on revolutions. We celebrate the deeds of the dead, and imagine the unbridled radicalism of time gone by; this is what has been described by some as “left melancholy”. Yet a history unbound by chronology is one of the present and the future, turning anniversaries into intermezzos, taking stock and ruminating on the balance of forces and the continuing struggle. As much as melancholy can describe a pathological attachment to that which is gone and never coming back, so too can it contain the idea of a longing for something yet to exist, and it is in precisely this tradition in which we should remember the events of the revolution. 

In a time in which the nationalist right appear ascendant, and proto-fascist ideologies reinforce imperialism and chauvinist racism, we do well to remember the origins of the German revolution as an internationalist rebellion against capitalist empire-building.

‘The main enemy is at home!’
Karl Liebknecht

At first glance it appears as though the First World War destroyed the Second International; in truth however the increasingly national-parliamentary horizon of social democracy dug its grave. As the SPD followed the Kaiser’s proclamation “I no longer recognise any parties, only Germans”, the other European workers’ parties followed suit. Karl Liebknecht was the first member of parliament to vote against ‘war credits’, initiating an inner-party opposition that would crystallize into the Independent Social Democrats, from which the Spartacus League latterly split. It was the ‘red sailors’ of the Imperial Navy in Kiel who were the spark igniting a movement which forced the abdication of the Kaiser, birthing the Republic, but the masses tired of a war between elites who ensured that this became a revolution.

‘The revolution is not the affair of a party!’
Otto Rühle

The Parties of the SPD, USPD and the KPD were vital actors in the revolution. Initially united, they latterly split along lines of radicalism and reformism. Yet Rühle’s statement is not meant as a broadside against all party organisation, but rather against attempts within the revolutionary process for any one organisation to anoint itself the privileged actor of what is always a heterodox struggle.

It is vital not to fall into the reductive anti-political rhetoric of defaming all parties as corrupted by the lust for power, but rather to ask ourselves the question how might we ensure that they remain part of the revolutionary movement and the movement part of them, the German SPD in this sense an object lesson of how not to do it: in a crowded hall last Thursday, historian Axel Weipert replied to the question why the revolution had failed with the seemingly counterintuitive answer of “well did it in fact fail”? From the perspective of the SPD this was the moment inaugurating them into the heart of state power.

This is the way in which the present day SPD is now seeking to frame the event, as a bourgeois revolution led by social democrats, a transition from outmoded monarchy to parliamentary republic, perhaps seeing a chance to remind the electorate of its once pivotal role amidst hemorrhaging support. The second phase of the revolution, beginning with the occupations of key sites in Berlin on January 5th – newspaper and telegraph offices, presses, train stations – is harder for the present-day administrators of capital to appropriate, that of the intensification of the revolution’s radicalism and a polarisation between those who wished to govern the new republic and others who insisted on nothing short of the storming of heaven. 

‘Get up Arthur, today’s the revolution!’
Claire Casper-Defert

Rosa and Karl are the symbols of the Revolution, and with good reason, as not just their deeds but their ideas serve to inspire us to this day. Yet the Spartacus League’s role is overstated, ignoring the different groups constituting the KPD after its founding in December 1918, one comrade stating on a recent tour of revolutionary Berlin, “what emerged out of this congress was the name of a party, not a party itself.” As well as constituent KPD members, the uprisings of January were radicalized by the actions of women and workers organizing outside the traditionally social-democratic trade unions, and many of the occupations of January 5th were led by precisely these groups. Though women would be positioned at the rear of the demonstrations behind the armed men at the front, and behind them the unarmed men, they were consistently present during the events of 1918/1919. Rebellious women came to be associated with the threat of bolshevism as such in reactionary nationalist discourse, just one of many arguments for the murder of the revolutionaries under the guise of the restoration of order.

‘All Power to the Councils’
Revolutionary slogan of the Council-Republic

The key lesson of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils is their political content, and the way in which these groups facilitated a means of radicalizing through direct experience. The councils were organisations which removed much of the divisions otherwise defining day-to-day life under capitalism: work/life, class-struggle/social administration, politics/reproduction.

The maximalist demands of the councils remain precisely as relevant as they were then. The three key demands were for the integration of the council system into national democracy, the socialization of the means of production – beginning with coal-mines of the Ruhr that were seen both as industrially important and under especially reactionary ownership – and thirdly the refoundation of the army. 

The third demand is particularly pertinent, as the complete failure of even reform in this regard guarantees the army as an ideological vacuum and tool of the ruling order. The ‘Hamburg Points’ program included demands for the election of officers, the disbanding and refoundation of the national army as a people’s militia and the abolition of distinguishing insignia of rank between soldiers.

The question of the relation of the movement to the repressive state apparatus is not theoretical, but rather strategic; in 1918 Emil Eichhorn was Berlin’s revolutionary socialist chief of police, removed for handing machine guns to the proletariat, thus initiating the January Uprising. How are we to position ourselves toward a reactionary police and army alien to class consciousness in terms of demands which might change the conditions of their existence, moving beyond that reflexive hatred towards them as bodyguards of the capitalist hegemony? If we are to win, this question needs new answers. 

‘Who has betrayed us? Social democrats!’
Typical refrain of the German left

It was Germany’s first Social-Democratic government who allied themselves with the proto-fascist Freikorps, voluntary far-right regiments obsessed with purging German society of revolutionary elements. Many of the Freikorps would later join the SA and Nazi party, the Weimar republic consecrated with the blood of 1000s of revolutionaries they murdered from January to March; Rosa and Karl simply the best known and most commemorated. Indeed the very name of the Weimar republic speaks to its foundation as anti-revolutionary, the National Assembly having been moved to the sleepy provincial town to avoid its obstruction due to revolutionary tumult. 

At a point in which many of the projects offering hope to the left – Corbyn, Bernie, Melenchon – are all distinctly social-democratic and parliamentarist in outlook, this anniversary is a perfect time to remind ourselves of the limitations of these approaches. As we see in La France Insoumise’s decisions to sing the Marseillaise and fly the Tricolore (symbols also commonly present among the Gilets Jaunes) as opposed to opting for the red flag and the Internationale, these projects, though inspiring globally, often lack an internationalist strategy in an immediate sense. Social democracy’s obsession with gaining power in existing capitalist nation-states necessitates compromise with ‘national-interests’, be it in the form of scapegoating migrant labour, pacts with capital or continuing militarization of borders. A radical left might relate strategically to these tendencies, yet must not dissolve itself into them. 

‘We communists are dead men on leave’
Eugen Leviné

History does not repeat but rather echoes and distorts in forms that are ourselves in an interplay between singularity and repetition. It is in this sense that we must see ourselves as living in a crisis that began in the twilight of WWI and continues to this day. 

As the Russian Jewish communist Leviné opted to speak to in court, accused of treason for his part in the Bavarian Council-Republic, he was guaranteeing his death in a situation where repentant silence may have saved his life. 

That communists are the ‘dead on leave’ is not some sort of call to martyrdom, but rather the reminder that so long as we set ourselves resolutely against the system in which we live, those who wish to maintain it will always have an interest in repressing us, destroying our structures and conditions for organizing. Movements of the left in the current conjuncture must not content themselves with a space on the margins or the consolations of parliamentarism, but should rather think that idea of the council into our current organizing; creating radical spaces of political experience with radicalizing potential and daring maximalist programmes; a combining of struggles across interest-groups, a unitary strategy that, had it took hold in 1918/19 might have guaranteed the revolution’s success. 

Rosa Luxemburg always emphasized the importance of mutual solidarity in revolutions, which she saw far more as ruptures in the ruling order than the natural end of some inevitable teleology. Though this year’s commemoration of the revolutionaries’ deaths was a somber affair – still defined by that workers movement tradition of the funeral as demonstration – the many events around the 100 year anniversary in Berlin have been attended by hundreds of people, buzzing with an enthusiasm that refuses to simply commemorate and historicize. Rather, the concerns mirror Rosa’s words of how a movement must be organised as at once a force for and an expression of the goals of revolution:

‘Unapologetic revolutionary drive and magnanimous humanity; this alone is the true breath of socialism. A world must be overthrown, yet every tear that falls, although it could have been wiped away, is an indictment.’

One hundred years on, we do not remember the Revolution so much as we continue to live through its interim defeat, our struggle that of solidarity with both the no-longer and the not-yet living.

Tagged under: