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The Living Flame: The Revolutionary Passion of Rosa Luxemburg shows the importance of keeping Luxemburg’s ideas of revolutionary democracy alive, finds Orlando Hill

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Paul Le Blanc, The Living Flame: The Revolutionary Passion of Rosa Luxemburg (Haymarket Books), 158pp.

The Living Flame is part of the Rosa Luxemburg revival which has been building up since the beginning of this century. Le Blanc has been actively involved from the beginning writing articles, books and assisting in Verso Books’ project, in cooperation with the ‘worldwide Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’ (p.2) to make available The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg. The ongoing publication is on the third volume.

The book is a collection of essays, a book review, and an interview. It answers the question: What is it about Rosa Luxemburg that attracts a growing number of activists across the world, while also attracting contempt from the right and sections of the left? In Le Blanc’s opinion, and I agree with him, it is her ‘unshakable conviction of the centrality of genuine democracy to genuine socialism, and the compelling need for both’ (p.1).

Many have tried to extinguish Rosa’s living flame. Those who were determined to preserve the status quo could not allow her to live. She was demonised as a ‘Jewish slut’ and ‘the repulsive bloody Rosa’ (p.39). In the aftermath of the Berlin uprising of January 1919, during the German Revolution, paramilitary groups known as Freikorps (largely army officers) seized the opportunity and rounded up and murdered leftist ‘troublemakers’, all in the pretext of defending the new Weimar Republic. Rosa Luxemburg was among the victims. A plaque in Berlin commemorates the place where her body was thrown into the canal.

Had Luxemburg and her comrades not met their deaths in 1919 it is reasonable to argue that a growing Communist Party of Germany could have led a successful revolution in 1920 or 1923 when the conditions were developed. The Russian Revolution would have been saved from its isolation and Hitlerism and Stalinism would have been prevented. What a different world we would be living in now.

Not content in murdering her, it was also necessary to eliminate her followers. In the 1930s, Rosa Luxemburg was denounced as a ‘counterrevolutionary Menshevik’ by the Communist International (Comintern). In 1938, the Polish Communist Party was dissolved by the Comintern on the grounds that it had fallen too much under the influence of Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. Its leaders were summoned to Moscow where they were purged and executed.

Luxemburg and Lenin

The next step was to distort her ideas and create false controversies. An example of this is Luxemburg’s 1904 critique of Lenin’s ideas on revolutionary organisation. The myth propagated by anti-Communists, reformists and even some on the anti-capitalist left is while Lenin defended the concept that the revolution could only be carried out by a centralised group of professional revolutionaries, Luxemburg thought that the revolution was a result of the increasing understanding and participation of the masses. In other words, she believed in the spontaneity of the proletarian masses while Lenin’s ideas led to the dangers of bureaucracy and eventually Stalin.

In the essay Luxemburg and Lenin on Revolutionary Organization (p.40), Le Blanc dispels the idea that Luxemburg disapproved of organisational centralism. In fact, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, which she led and had to operate in underground conditions similar to Russia’s, was far more centralised than the Bolshevik party under Lenin. Luxemburg’s critique also must be put in context. When she refers to professionals her focus is not the Bolsheviks, whose professionalism led the Russian masses to a victorious revolution, but the German professionals who had become careerists, and bureaucrats responsible for the ossifying of the party machine.

Another problem is that in 1904, most well-read Marxists outside Russia were influenced by Lenin’s Menshevik opponents. Much of Luxemburg’s polemic against Lenin can only be understood in this context. Lenin, in a not very well-known reply, goes through her critiques one by one clearing away various false arguments. Le Blanc points out that there is far more common ground between the two revolutionaries than is generally acknowledged. Both agreed on the necessity of a party which ‘possess the gift of political mobility, complemented by unflinching loyalty to principles and concerns for unity’ (p.52).

Luxemburg’s critique is that a centralised organisation without internal democracy can degenerate into a sect isolating itself from the masses, which would make it incapable of leading a revolution. Lenin agreed and emphasised the democratic aspect of democratic centralism. Le Blanc concludes by stating that it makes little historical sense in counterposing Lenin and Luxemburg regarding revolutionary organisation. More fruitful would be to see the polemic as a dialogue between two comrades.

Luxemburg and the economics of imperialism

There is much more to Luxemburg than the polemic between her and Lenin. Her texts are a lesson on how to write articles. She was critical of the writing style of members of the party, ‘so conventional, so wooden, so cut and dry’ (p.25). She wrote as if she were talking to the reader. If anyone is thinking of writing for Counterfire or anywhere else should follow her advice:

‘in every article you must live through the thing again, you must feel your way through it, and then fresh words – coming from the heart and going to the heart – would occur to express the old familiar thing’ (p.25).

Most of what has been written regarding Luxemburg has focused on her political activism and overlooked her contribution to economic theory. She was one of the first women in Europe to earn a Ph.D. in economics. Her classic The Accumulation of Capital seeks to advance what she saw as Marx’s incomplete and undeveloped analysis of how surplus value is realised in the second volume of Capital.

She argued that imperialism is at the heart of capitalism and cannot be regarded as a later stage in its development. Imperialism was present at the earliest stages of capitalist development in what Marx described as primitive capitalist accumulation. Surplus value is realised in consumption and since workers receive less value than they create, capitalism needs to expand into non-capitalist areas seeking markets and opportunities for investment. There are objections to some of the technical aspects of her economic analysis, but seen through the actual history of capitalism, her general arguments are surely valid.

In her analysis, Luxemburg was very sensitive to the impact of imperialism on the various peoples of the world. She included examples from the peasants of England to the destruction of the native Americans and enslavement of Africans. Militarism is not an accident which can be indefinitely stopped under capitalism. It has fulfilled an economic role in the globalisation of the market economy in every historical stage of accumulation. Its role is not confined to the rivalry between competing imperialist powers. The military is a major buyer of the mass of products containing capitalised surplus value. As an extra way of extracting surplus value, the workers foot the bill in the form of taxes.

Many right-wing commentators like to conflate capitalism with democracy. For Luxemburg democracy is not historically ‘the normal functioning of the capitalist market, but rather [the result of] the mass pressure and mass struggle of the working class movement and its allies’ (p.61). ‘It is only our pressure, our pushing the bourgeois reforms to extremes, which squeezes a quarter once of “good will” out of the bourgeoise’ (p.101). In short, capitalism and democracy are incompatible. It is the struggle for reforms that ‘sooner or later break forth into a period of revolutionary struggles for state power’ (p.101).

Luxemburg the revolutionary and the person

Rosa Luxemburg was not your stereotypical revolutionary that the media likes to portray. She refused to focus exclusively on political conflicts. If she were alive today, along with her political comments, she would probably be posting photos of her cat Mini on social media. The comment might be something like what she wrote in one of her letters: ‘I discovered her (Mini) in my bed, but she was lying so that the cover was tucked up prettily right under her chin with her head on the pillow exactly the way I lie’ (p.90). Imagine the number of likes, gifs and emojis she would get for that.

Rosa Luxemburg was one of the most human of all Marxists. She believed that a narrow focus on politics ‘clouds one’s political judgment; and, above all, one must live as a full person at all times’ (p.27). Living Flame does her justice because it is written by someone who admires her as a person and not as a ‘Revolutionary Goddess’ (p.7). Le Blanc understands that she got certain things wrong, but even when she did get them wrong, she was not completely wrong.

I recommend this book to anyone who wishes not to simply honour her memory, but to keep her ideas of revolutionary democracy alive. According to Le Blanc this can only be done if ‘we embrace, as critically and honestly as we can, the challenge of her ideas for our own time’ (p.60). As activists we have the duty to do this wherever we are, London, Portland or Rio.

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Orlando Hill

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.

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