The Revolutionary Lives series featured up to Issue 18 of Red Banner, each article dealing with the life of one of the great socialists. Rosa Luxemburg was first, in November 1997, in this article by Maeve Connaughton.
The life of one of history’s finest revolutionaries began on 5 March 1871 when Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamosc in Poland. The youngest of a Jewish middle-class family, she grew up under the rule of the Russian empire. The academic abilities she displayed as a young girl allowed her to become one of the limited number of Jews permitted to attend Warsaw’s state schools. The anti-Semitism was part of the Tsarist educational system’s Russification policy, which also banned children from speaking Polish.
It comes as no great surprise, therefore, that Luxemburg’s opposition to oppression dates from her schooldays. “My ideal”, she wrote to a friend at the age of sixteen, “is a social system that allows one to love everybody with a clear conscience.” Although her exam results earned her a gold medal, the school authorities withheld it from her on account of her rebellious attitude. She had already made her first contact with the socialist movement, probably joining the illegal Proletariat party. To avoid falling victim to the state persecution of its members, and to continue her studies, she fled across the border to Switzerland.
In Zurich she encountered a wide circle of socialist intellectuals, and was a founder member of the exile Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland. The SDKP stood on an uncompromising internationalist platform: rather than fight for the reconstruction of the Polish nation, Polish workers should unite with Russian workers in a common fight for democracy and socialism. Luxemburg was one of the party’s leading thinkers, putting its position forward in opposition to the right-wing Polish Socialist Party (the PPS) which refused to talk about the struggle for socialism until national independence had been won. Her writings in the SDKP paper Sprawa Robotnicza (Workers’ Cause) and her activity on the international socialist stage won her a respected role in the movement. (Although she was far from respected by the PPS, who, in a futile attempt to keep her out of the 1896 Socialist International congress, resorted to the claim that she was on friendly terms with the head of the Warsaw police!)
Fighting reformism in Germany
In 1898 Luxemburg moved to Berlin. Germany was the undisputed centre of European socialism, and the German Social Democratic Party (the SPD—all socialists went by the name of social democrats at the time) the jewel in its crown. She rapidly made a name for herself agitating amongst the Polish workers in eastern Germany, but it was her opposition to reformism that brought her to centre stage.
Eduard Bernstein, a leading member of the SPD, published a series of articles attempting to revise the party’s politics completely. Marx’s analysis of capitalism was out of date, claimed Bernstein: the system was not headed for crisis, but showed an almost infinite adaptability. The SPD should abandon all talk of revolution, therefore, and come out openly as a plain and simple party of social reform.
The most powerful reply to Bernstein’s attack was Luxemburg’s pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution? Firstly, she wrote, he was wrong to place the fight for reforms in opposition to the fight for revolution:
For Social Democracy there exists an indissoluble tie between social reforms and revolution. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its goal.… Legal reform and revolution are not different methods of historical progress that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages.… He who pronounces himself in favour of the method of legal reforms in place of and as opposed to the conquest of political power and social revolution does not really choose a more tranquil, surer and slower road to the same goal. He chooses a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new social order, he takes a stand for surface modifications of the old order.
Point by point Luxemburg refuted Bernstein’s propositions. Small business was not flourishing; trade unions could not end the exploitation of the workers; the credit system made capitalism less stable; the breakdown of the economy was inevitable; socialism could not be legislated for bit by bit. The reformist emperor had no clothes on, she concluded:
What? Is that all you have to say? Not a shadow of an original thought! Not a single idea that was not refuted, crushed, ridiculed, and reduced to dust by Marxism decades ago!
It was sufficient for opportunism to speak in order to prove that it had nothing to say.
One of opportunism’s chief characteristics, she wrote, was its hostility to theory—and little wonder, for Marxist principles demand that activity serves the cause of the working class. “It is thus natural for those who only run after practical results to want to free their hands, i.e., to split our practice from ‘theory,’ to make it independent of theory.” Luxemburg always insisted on the importance of theory—not, as she wrote later, a set of holy texts, but a continuous and developing understanding of the world:
it is only where economic matters are concerned that we are entitled to speak of a more or less completely elaborated body of doctrines bequeathed us by Marx. The most valuable of all his teachings, the materialist-dialectical conception of history, presents itself to us as nothing more than a method of investigation, as a few inspired leading thoughts, which offer us glimpses into an entirely new world, which open to us endless perspectives of independent activity, which wing our spirits for bold flights into unexplored regions.
Her reply to Bernstein won Luxemburg her spurs in German social democracy, but the party leadership still had their suspicions. The old, reasonable, Teutonic men weren’t quite sure what to make of her—young, a Pole, a Jew, a woman, and above all a revolutionary. She was “not de la maison”, she wrote, not ‘one of us’, as far as the SPD was concerned. They were none too happy, for instance, with her criticisms of the party papers:
The style is conventional, wooden, stereotypical… just a colourless, dull sound like that of a running engine. To my mind the reason behind it is that when people write they mostly forget to reach deep into their own selves, to relive the importance and truth of the subject. I believe that every time, every day, in every article you must live through the thing again, you must feel your way through it. Only then will the old, familiar truths, expressed in words new and bright, go from the writer’s heart to the reader’s heart.
What kind of party?
Luxemburg retained her link with the SDKP all the time, which meant that Vladimir Lenin’s efforts to build a revolutionary socialist organisation for the Russian empire concerned her directly. In 1904 she reviewed his book One Step Forward, Two Steps Back and disagreed sharply with many of its conclusions.
She agreed with Lenin that a centralised revolutionary organisation was necessary to replace the scattered circles of Russian socialists. But he was wrong to model this on the republican societies of the French revolution, with virtually unlimited powers for the party leadership: “the Social Democratic centralisation cannot be based on blind obedience, nor on the mechanical subordination of the party militants to a central power”. What was required was “so to speak, a ‘self-centralisation’ of the leading stratum of the proletariat; it is the rule of the majority within its own party organisation”.
Lenin was wrong, she said, to believe that reformism could be warded off by correct organisational statutes. A socialist party would always have to steer, in practice, between two reefs: “the loss of its mass character and the abandonment of its goal, becoming a sect and becoming a bourgeois reformist movement”. What Russia needed was a leadership that would regulate and co-ordinate socialist activity, rather than “his majesty the central committee” prescribing and ordaining it:
the true subject to whom this role of director falls is the collective ego of the working class, which insists on its right to make its own mistakes and to learn the historical dialectic by itself. Finally, we must frankly admit to ourselves that errors made by a truly revolutionary labour movement are historically infinitely more fruitful and more valuable than the infallibility of the best of all possible “central committees”.
(Lenin, for his part, later admitted that he had pushed his point too far in an attempt to overcome his opponents. And subsequent writings of his on the question of party organisation advocated the exact opposite of the self-confessed bureaucratic conception he had earlier put forward.)
The 1905 revolution
The question assumed a more practical importance in 1905 when revolution broke out in Russia and Tsarist rule came under sustained attack by a wave of demonstrations, strikes, and uprisings. Luxemburg managed to get back to Warsaw by the end of the year to take part, but within three months was arrested for her trouble. On bail pending her trial, she went to Finland where she drew some of the revolution’s lessons for the German workers’ movement in the pamphlet Mass Strike, Party and Unions.
She described the immediate effect of the revolution’s outbreak:
it for the first time awoke feeling and class-consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock. And this awakening of class feeling expressed itself forthwith in the circumstance that the proletarian mass, counted by millions, quite suddenly and sharply came to realise how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism. Thereupon there began a spontaneous general shaking of and tugging at these chains.
Here concessions on wages were won, hated foremen driven out; there an eight-hour day achieved, piecework abolished. The workers moved continually from one front to another: “Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes in individual branches and general strikes in individual cities, peaceful wage struggles and street battles, barricade fighting—all these run through one another, next to each other, cross one another, flow in and over one another; it is an eternally moving, changing sea of phenomena.”
The fight against Tsarism and the fight against capitalism went hand in hand:
Between the two there is a complete reciprocal action.
Each new rising and new victory of the political struggle simultaneously changes itself into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle by expanding the external possibilities of the latter, increasing the inner drive of the workers to better their situation, and increasing their desire to struggle. After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. And vice-versa. The ceaseless state of economic war of the worker with capital keeps the fighting energy alive at every political pause. It forms, so to speak, the ever fresh reservoir of strength of the proletarian class, out of which the political struggle continually renews its strength.… The economic struggle is that which leads the political struggle from one nodal point to another; the political struggle is that which periodically fertilises the soil for the economic struggle.…And their unity is precisely the mass strike.
The German trade union leaders were wary, not to say frightened, of the Russian mass strikes, and concerned above all to prevent the idea catching on in Germany. The growth of the unions, wrote Luxemburg, had cultivated an entrenched bureaucracy at the top, placing their organisation and its petty gains above the general struggle of the working class. But the mass strike was not some proposal that could be implemented or rejected by means of conference resolutions: it was a spontaneously emerging form of the workers’ struggle itself—and “revolutions allow no one to play schoolmaster to them”.
Pushing for revolutionary internationalism
Luxemburg was far from the only revolutionary exiled in Finland. In discussions with leaders of the Russian Bolshevik party, a mutual respect and understanding grew, especially between herself and Lenin, despite their earlier differences. One result of this appeared at the 1907 congress of the Socialist International, where they successfully proposed an amendment to sharpen up the compromise anti-war resolution:
In the case of a threat of an outbreak of war, it is the duty of the working classes… to do everything to prevent the outbreak of war by whatever means seem to them most effective… Should war break out in spite of all this, it is their duty to intercede for its speedy end, and to strive with all their power to make use of the violent economic and political crisis brought about by the war to rouse the people, and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.
But their agreement didn’t extend as far as the national question. Luxemburg had always argued, against the right wing of Polish socialism, that national independence should not be the Polish workers’ objective. They should unite with the other nationalities in the Russian empire to win a democratic state where the Poles would enjoy autonomy, control over their own national and cultural affairs. The right of national self-determination, she argued, was meaningless in the era of international capitalism, and socialists should ignore nationalist aspirations and strive to unite workers across national boundaries.
Lenin insisted that international workers’ unity could only be achieved by fighting all national oppression—as did Luxemburg. But, he argued, this could only be done by demanding the right of oppressed nations to complete independence if they so wished. Limiting them to cultural autonomy would only give ground to the nationalists’ attempts to split the working class. While Polish socialists were correct to argue for Poland to stay linked with Russia, Russian socialists had to insist on its right to separate. On the national question, it was Lenin who was right and Luxemburg who was wrong.
Meanwhile, back in Germany, Luxemburg was crossing swords more seriously than ever with the SPD leadership. In 1910 the SPD was supposed to be in the middle of a campaign to win the right to vote for all workers, but Luxemburg was convinced that their hearts weren’t in it. In a series of articles and speeches she called for mass action, including strikes, to win the vote. If the party leadership weren’t willing to call for such action, rank and file workers should initiate it themselves.
While Luxemburg had long been the bugbear of the SPD’s right wing, this brought on the opposition of the entire party leadership, from left to right. Karl Kautsky, the SPD’s leading theoretician and a personal friend of Luxemburg, was considered the intellectual head of the German left, but even he joined in the attack, advocating instead of radical action a strategy of wearing down the government gradually. Luxemburg gave as good as she got, reserving her worst for Kautsky. (Even Lenin, at this stage, retained his admiration for Kautsky: it took the events of 1914 to open his eyes.)
Now she was in open opposition to the leadership there were no holds barred. In 1911 war threatened when the German government sent a warship to Morocco to protect its interests against France. When the Socialist International inquired of the various parties what action should be taken, the SPD leaders thought it best to do nothing for fear that opposition to German imperialism would lose it votes in the following year’s elections. Luxemburg published their reply to the International, angering the leadership but promoting a debate in the party. The SPD would achieve nothing, she wrote, as long as it looked at the class struggle “merely from the point of view of the ballot slip”. The left wing of the party began to organise, taking a clear form at the end of 1913 with the appearance of their paper Sozialdemokratische Korrespondenz (Social Democratic Correspondence).
War and the great betrayal
But even the left were surprised by the depth of the SPD’s betrayal in 1914. The long-expected war for empire broke out, and on 4 August the SPD parliamentary deputies voted the money needed to wage it. After all the years of fine words and big resolutions against war social democracy joined hands with the ruling class. The workers of other countries now became the enemy as far as the SPD was concerned, all criticism of the government was stamped on, and the class struggle was postponed for the duration. The other socialist parties throughout Europe followed suit, with a few honourable exceptions, and the hopes of international workers’ solidarity were buried on the battlefields.
Luxemburg was apparently suicidal at the news: the socialist movement had crumbled to pieces in front of her eyes. But slowly the forces of socialist opposition to the war began to gather: Franz Mehring, the socialist historian; Clara Zetkin, veteran agitator for the liberation of working women; Julian Marchlewski, an old comrade since the founding of the SDKP; Karl Liebknecht, soon to become the only SPD deputy to vote against the war; and Rosa Luxemburg. These, and others who joined them, managed to get a paper out, Die Internationale (The International), and to get their standpoint across despite everything.
But this opposition was dealt a heavy blow six months into the war when Luxemburg was arrested. Apart from three months in 1916 she would spend the rest of the war under lock and key. If the authorities sought to silence her, however, they were disappointed. From her prison cell she still managed to smuggle out articles and documents for the struggle outside.
Foremost among these was The Crisis in German Social Democracy—better known as the Junius pamphlet, from the pseudonym Luxemburg adopted—written in 1915 but not published until the following year. “The scene has fundamentally changed”, she began. Gone was the hysteria of the war’s beginning, as the mundane business of killing and profiteering took over and capitalism stood forth in all its glory:
Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth—thus stands bourgeois society. And so it is. Not as we usually see it, pretty and chaste, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, ethics and culture. It shows itself in its true, naked form—as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity.
And in the midst of this orgy a world-historical tragedy has occurred: the capitulation of Social Democracy.
There was no use attempting to minimise the tragedy—it had to be faced up to in its full extent:
Self-criticism, cruel, unsparing criticism that goes to the very root of things is life and light for the proletarian movement.… No other party, no other class in capitalist society can dare to expose its own errors, its own weaknesses, before the whole world in the clear mirror of criticism, for the mirror would reflect the historical limits which stand before it and the historical fate behind it. The working class can always look truth and the bitterest self-criticism in the face
Undoubtedly there were objective causes for the weakness of social democracy in the hour of need. But its failure was, at bottom, a failure of courage and conviction. It was a lame excuse to throw the blame on some mysterious ‘objective factors’:
Scientific socialism has taught us to understand the objective laws of historical development. People do not make history according to their own volition. But they make it nonetheless. In its action, the proletariat is dependent upon the given degree of ripeness of social development. But social development does not take place apart from the proletariat. The proletariat is its driving force and its cause as well as its product and its effect. The action of the proletariat is itself a co-determining part of history. And though we can no more skip a period in our historical development than a man can jump over his own shadow, it lies within our power to accelerate or to retard it.
The barbarity of the world war presented humanity with the starkest of choices: “Either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery. Or, the victory of socialism, that is, the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method: war.” The decision would rest upon whether the working class threw its weight in the scales—and if it did, “the shame and misery will not have been in vain”.
Luxemburg examined the history of German imperialism and the background to the war. She examined also the history of the SPD’s opposition to war and its mysterious disappearance on 4 August 1914. This was no war to defend the German people or to defeat Tsarism—it was a war in the interests of imperialist expansion. Whichever empire won, the war constituted a disaster—the world was witnessing “the mass destruction of the European proletariat” in the trenches:
It is our power, our hope that is being daily mown down like swathes of hay under the sickle. It is the best, most intelligent and well-trained forces of international socialism, the bearers of the holiest traditions and the boldest heroism of the modern workers’ movement, the advance troops of the entire world proletariat—the workers of England, France, Belgium, Germany, Russia—that are now being gagged and cut down together.
Only the revolutionary solidarity of the workers could call a halt to the horror: “The madness will only stop, and the bloody hellish nightmare will only cease, when the workers in Germany and France, in England and Russia finally wake up from their drunken sleep, clasp each other’s hands in brotherhood and drown out the bestial chorus of the imperialist warmongers and the hoarse cry of the capitalist hyenas with the mighty battle cry of labour: Proletarians of all countries, unite!”
Luxemburg’s period in prison was amazingly productive. As well as continuing her lifelong study and development of Marxist economics she found time to translate the memoirs of the Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko. It was pointless, she wrote in her introduction, to judge literature by the author’s formal political viewpoint:
Patterns such as “revolutionary” or “progressive” in themselves mean very little in art.
Dostoyevsky, especially in his later writings, is an outspoken reactionary, a religious mystic and hater of socialists. His depictions of Russian revolutionaries are malicious caricatures. Tolstoy’s mystic doctrines reflect reactionary tendencies, if not more. But the writings of both have, nevertheless, an inspiring, arousing, and liberating effect upon us. And this is because their starting points are not reactionary, their thoughts and emotions are not governed by the desire to hold on to the status quo, nor are they motivated by social hatred, narrow-mindedness, or caste egotism. On the contrary, theirs is the warmest love for mankind and the deepest response to social injustice.… with the true artist, the social formula that he recommends is of secondary importance; the source of his art, its animating spirit, is decisive.
Luxemburg’s letters from prison document her compassion and spirit, that endured against all odds. Her new year’s greeting to a friend was accompanied by a firm instruction:
see to it that you remain a human being. To be human is the main thing, and that means to be strong and clear and of good cheer in spite of and because of everything, for tears are the preoccupation of weakness. To be human means throwing one’s life “on to the scales of destiny” if need be, to be joyful for every fine day and every beautiful cloud—oh, I can’t write you any recipes how to be human, I only know how to be human… The world is so beautiful in spite of all the misery and would be even more beautiful if there were no half-wits and cowards in it.
But above all she smuggled out writings for the Internationale group—or Spartacus, as they soon be came known, after the leader of the famous slave revolt. In one Spartacus pamphlet she rounded on those who saw international solidarity as a strictly peacetime institution: “the proud old cry, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’ has been transformed on the battlefields into the command, ‘Proletarians of all countries, cut each other’s throats!’” Luxemburg’s faith led in the opposite direction; “The world brotherhood of workers is the highest and most sacred thing on earth to me: it is my guiding star, my ideal, my fatherland. I would rather lose my life than be untrue to this ideal!”
The Russian revolution
That ideal came a little closer to realisation in Russia in February 1917 when the Tsar was overthrown, and closer still in October when the workers took power. Luxemburg greeted the news enthusiastically but doubted if the Russian working class could hold on for long. The German socialists had to behold the mote in their own eye, she concluded: a revolution in Germany was needed if the Russian workers were to be freed from the cleft stick of isolation.
But her attitude to the Bolsheviks was never uncritical, and she wrote a critique of their policies—not for publication but to clarify her own and her comrades’ minds. The German workers would never take power themselves, she wrote, without learning to think critically: “Not by the creation of a revolutionary hurrah-spirit, but quite the contrary: only by an insight into all the fearful seriousness, all the complexity of the tasks involved, only as a result of political maturity and independence of spirit, only as a result of a capacity for critical judgment on the part of the masses, which capacity was systematically killed by the social democracy for decades under various pretexts, only thus can the genuine capacity for historical action be born in the German proletariat.”
There was no question, however, but that the Bolsheviks had achieved an unparalleled feat:
Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in a historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honour and capacity which western social democracy lacked were represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honour of international socialism.
At the same time, the revolution took place in desperate circumstances, and was forced to take desperate measures. Undoubtedly, said Luxemburg, the Bolsheviks “have taken many a decisive step only with the greatest inner hesitation and with most violent inner opposition”. It would be completely wrong, therefore, that every tactic forced upon them “should be regarded by the International as a shining example of socialist policy toward which only uncritical admiration and zealous imitation are in order”.
Her first disagreement was with the Bolsheviks’ land policy. The classic Marxist view had always been that the land should come into common ownership: that rich farmers should be expropriated, and poor farmers encouraged to move voluntarily towards co-operative farming. The Bolsheviks, however, had allowed the farmers to seize the land and divide it among themselves. Instead of moving towards socialist agriculture, claimed Luxemburg, they had placed obstacles in its way.
In the abstract Luxemburg was right enough; but in practice the Bolsheviks had little choice. The farmers were already taking over the land for themselves—all the Bolsheviks did was to accept the fact. To oppose the land seizures would have meant launching a civil war. The workers could never have come to power in the towns without the support of the small farmers in the country, and the Bolsheviks’ recognition of that fact was a key factor in the revolution’s success.
Luxemburg’s next point of attack was the Bolshevik position in regard to the nationalities. Instead of defending the territorial integrity of revolutionary Russia, they were promoting the abstract right to self-determination, encouraging bourgeois nationalists to break territories away from the revolution. Luxemburg was here advancing her long-standing position on the national question once again. And again, the policy advocated by Lenin was the correct one: only by defending their right to separate could the oppressed nationalities of the old Tsarist empire be won to the new workers’ state.
Luxemburg then criticised the dissolution of the constituent assembly following the revolution. The Bolsheviks, she felt, should have maintained this parliament alongside the workers’ councils that had taken power in October. But the workers’ councils were far more democratic institutions, directly expressing the will of the revolutionary working class. The constituent assembly could only have become, at best, a talking shop—or, at worst, a rallying-point for counter-revolution.
Luxemburg’s strongest objection was to the restrictions that were placed on workers’ democratic rights:
Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom. Freedom is always the freedom to think differently. Not because of a fanaticism for “justice” but because all that is animating, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a privilege.
The right to dissent was a vital necessity if the people were to play a full and intelligent role in political life and contribute to overcoming the revolution’s many problems. She gave a grim warning of the shape of things to come if this didn’t happen:
Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously—at bottom, then, a clique affair—a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians
The problem with Trotsky’s and Lenin’s conception of workers’ dictatorship, she wrote, was that—just like their reactionary opponents—they saw it as a question of “Dictatorship or democracy”. In reality the workers’ rule is about putting real democracy into practice:
We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom—not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy—not to eliminate democracy altogether.
The working class needed untrammelled rule to defeat the resistance of the capitalists, to create the conditions in which a socialist society could grow: a dictatorship of the proletariat was necessary. “But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class—that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.”
Luxemburg’s picture of Russia was undoubtedly one-sided. The wonder of the revolution’s first years is how far it did manage to fulfil her vision of vibrant workers’ democracy. Given the attempts of world capitalism to physically strangle the revolution at birth, and the isolation of the Russian working class, it is hardly surprising that socialism failed to flourish—and that, within a short time, the Stalinist counter-revolution would succeed in wiping out what was left of workers’ power and fulfilling Luxemburg’s worst nightmare ten times over.
She herself recognised the situation the revolution found itself in. Having described the democratic essence of socialism, she continued:
Doubtless the Bolsheviks would have proceeded in this very way were it not that they suffered under the frightful compulsion of the World War, the German occupation and all the abnormal difficulties connected therewith, things which were inevitably bound to distort any socialist policy, however imbued it might be with the best intentions and the finest principles.… It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy.
But the problem was the tendency that the Bolsheviks had to make general principles out of measures that would never have been taken only for the unfavourable position the revolution was in:
The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics. When they get in their own light in this way, and hide their genuine, unquestionable historical service under the bushel of false steps forced upon them by necessity, they render a poor service to the international socialism for the sake of which they have fought and suffered; for they want to place in its storehouse as new discoveries all the distortions prescribed in Russia by necessity and compulsion
But nothing could take away from the Bolsheviks’ historical achievement. In the midst of mass slaughter and social democratic betrayal they had dared to fight for socialism. The ultimate responsibility for the shortcomings of the Russian revolution lay with the failure of the working class internationally, and especially in Germany. The revolution would have to become an international one if it was to succeed: “In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia, it can only be solved internationally. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism’.”
On some of the questions raised in this critique, Luxemburg later changed her mind. On the question of the constituent assembly, for example, she would soon spend half her time during the German revolution arguing against those who thought that a system of workers’ councils should be combined with a national assembly. But she quite rightly made no apologies for daring to criticise the Bolsheviks: “Enthusiasm coupled with the spirit of revolutionary criticism—what more could people want from us?”
Revolution in Germany
The horror of the world war was finally ended in 1918—not by peace conferences but by revolution. German soldiers and sailors refused to carry on fighting their rulers’ unwinnable war, and the mutiny was followed by an uprising in Berlin on 9 November. The Kaiser fled, workers’ and soldiers’ councils sprang up, and an SPD government took office. The revolution was underway, and it was the revolution that opened the prison gates for Luxemburg.
In the first issue of the new Spartacus paper Die rote Fahne (The Red Flag) she counselled a sober assessment of the situation. The German empire was gone but capitalism still ruled: “What is called for now is not jubilation at what has been accomplished, not triumph over the beaten foe, but the strictest self-criticism and iron concentration of energy in order to continue the work we have begun.” At the same time, mindful of the prisoners she had left behind her, she demanded the immediate abolition of the death penalty:
Rivers of blood have flown in torrents during the four years of imperialist genocide. Now every drop of the precious fluid must be preserved reverently and in crystal vessels. Ruthless revolutionary energy and tender humanity—this alone is the true life’s breath of socialism. A world must now be destroyed, but each tear that might have been avoided is an accusation; and a man who, while hurrying on to important deeds, inadvertently tramples underfoot even a poor worm, is guilty of a crime.
Now that the empire was gone Germany was faced with a simple choice: “bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy? For the dictatorship of the proletariat is democracy in a socialist sense.” And socialist democracy meant workers’ freedom: “The essence of socialist society is that the great working mass ceases to be a ruled mass and instead lives and controls its own political and economic life in conscious and free self-determination.”
In a Spartacus pamphlet she laid out the role and character of a socialist party:
The Spartacus League is not a party which desires to achieve power over the working mass or through the working mass.
The Spartacus League is only the most resolute part of the proletariat that at every step points out to the whole broad mass of workers its historical tasks, that at each individual stage of the revolution advocates the ultimate socialist goal, and that represents the interests of the proletarian world revolution in all national questions.… The Spartacus League will never assume governing power in any way other than through the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass in all Germany, never in any way other than on the strength of the masses’ conscious agreement with the views, aims and methods of struggle of the Spartacus League.
Throughout the war Spartacus had remained a tendency within the SPD, and from 1917 within the Independent SPD, a left-wing breakaway. The time had now come, they decided, to break away completely, to form a separate revolutionary organisation.
They have been accused of leaving it too late and condemning the German revolution to failure for want of an established revolutionary party. And while it would be simplistic to reduce the failure of the revolution to the absence of an organisation, the organised presence of revolutionaries in the German working class was undoubtedly weak, and this was a major factor in the ultimate defeat. But the claim that that defeat would have been averted if Luxemburg and her comrades had organisationally separated from the SPD at an earlier date is, at best, unproven.
Luxemburg was never averse to clear-cut revolutionary organisation—as her activity in the Polish movement shows—and she had politically separated from the SPD back in 1913, if not before. But she was afraid that the mass of socialist workers would be left in the hands of the SPD leadership if Spartacus broke away: by staying in the party formally, they could reach a wider audience. The main obstacle to this work—both before and after the war—was not the lack of an organisational apparatus but the activity of the government’s censors, prison guards, and soldiers. Acting as a revolutionary organisation was more important than formally proclaiming one.
The new organisation, the Communist Party of Germany (the KPD), was founded on 30 December 1918. In her speech to the party’s first congress Luxemburg set out the task facing the German workers: no less than the destruction of capitalism. That would mean the revolution becoming economic as well as political, a struggle of labour against capital:
The struggle for socialism has to be fought out by the masses, by the masses alone, breast to breast against capitalism, in every factory, by every proletarian against his employer. Only then will it be a socialist revolution.… Socialism will not and cannot be created by decrees; nor can it be established by any government, however socialistic. Socialism must be created by the masses, by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must they be broken. Only that is socialism, and only thus can socialism be created.
But the new party was largely young and untested, and had to find its feet in the midst of a revolution. This was fatally exposed in January 1919 when the right-wing forces provoked a battle with the left, a battle for which the left were completely unprepared. The KPD saw it as their duty to take part in the struggle, bad as the odds were, and they shared in its defeat. The army officers now held the initiative and, with the tacit support of the SPD in government, attempted to press home their advantage and finish off the revolutionaries once and for all.
The witch hunt caught up with Luxemburg on 15 January when she was arrested by soldiers and taken to their temporary headquarters at Berlin’s Eden Hotel. After a session of verbal and physical abuse, she was taken out the front entrance, where a soldier smashed her skull with two blows of his rifle butt. She was dragged into a waiting car, where a lieutenant finished her off with a bullet through the left temple. They drove to the Liechtenstein Bridge, from where her body was dumped in the Landwehr Canal.
Luxemburg’s body was not washed up until the end of May, and in the meantime rumours began to circulate round Berlin. Was she still alive? Had she managed to escape? Was she lying low, waiting to emerge and lead the revolution to victory? Of course, the grain of truth contained in these rumours was that Luxemburg’s ideas were still alive, they had escaped the assassins, and would emerge again.
Even now Luxemburg’s words and deeds remain powerful. Her stand against opportunism is still the greatest answer, not only to the reformist politicians who would sell their grandmother for a cabinet seat, but also to those further left who measure victory by their own petty day-to-day successes. Her opposition to war and imperialism still shames the labour leaders who send workers out to die for the greater glory of capitalism. Her understanding of the power of the working class in action is a standing reproach to the infallibility of self-proclaimed saviours of the proletariat, still attempting to play schoolmaster to the revolution. Her undying critical attitude, even faced with as magnificent a phenomenon as the Russian revolution, remains an absolute necessity for those who would follow her in the struggle for socialism. And above all, we cannot do without her determined recognition that that struggle means nothing if it is not a fight for complete human emancipation.
Rosa Luxemburg’s life ended in defeat. But in her last article, published the day before her murder, she pointed out that the way to revolutionary victory is always prepared by defeats: “Where would we be today without these ‘defeats’ from which we have drawn historical experience, knowledge, power, idealism!” To those who crowed over their temporary triumph, she warned that they would soon get theirs:
“Order reigns in Berlin!” You stupid lackeys! Your “order” is built on sand. The revolution will tomorrow “raise itself up clashing” and to your horror will proclaim, with trumpets blazing:
I was, I am, I shall be!