Socialist Classics: Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The Crisis of Social Democracy’

In Issue 62 (December 2015) Joe Conroy looked at a work that kept socialism alive amid the betrayals of the first world war.

In February 1915 Rosa Luxemburg was imprisoned in Berlin. She had been sentenced the year before for inciting soldiers to dis­obedience, but the sentence hadn’t been carried out. The authorities clearly believed that putting her off the scene now would be useful. From the outbreak of the world war, she had been among the most vocal of the few socialists in Germany who dissented from their party’s support for the war, and were now beginning to organise and make their voice heard.

While her imprisonment was a major blow to these efforts, official hopes that Luxemburg’s voice would be silenced went unfulfilled. She could still write behind bars, and worked on a scathing indictment of the war and the Social Democratic Party’s acquiescence in it. By April it was ready and smuggled out, but her comrades on the outside, harassed and with little resources, couldn’t get it printed. Only when she was released after a year was it finally published, in secret, but the demand necessitated numerous reprints. She signed it with the pseudonym Junius—used in eighteenth-century England by a defender of popular rights against the monarchy—and it has often been known since as the Junius Pamphlet.

Luxemburg begins by describing the atmosphere of the war, now the initial hysteria had settled down: “mass butchery has become a tiresome, monotonous everyday task”. War was now literally a case of business as usual:

The cannon fodder that was loaded and patriotically cheered on in August and September is rotting in Belgium, in the Vosges, in Masuria, on the killing fields from which crops of profit shoot up powerfully.… Business is flourishing upon the ruins.… Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth—thus stands capitalist society, as it is.… Dividends are rising, and proletarians are falling.

But even worse was the response from the sworn enemies of capitalism: “in the midst of this inferno a world-historic tragedy has occurred: the capitulation of international social democracy”. The parliamentary representatives of the Social Democratic Party of Germany had voted to give financial support to the war, and the party as a whole had hastened to give political support: “it forgot all its principles, its pledges, the decisions of international congresses just at the moment when they should have been applied”. It had called for all classes to rally around the national flag in wartime, “declared the class struggle to be extinct”, but the other side was cleverer:

Have private property, capitalist exploitation and class rule by any chance ceased to exist? Have the property owners perhaps declared in a flush of patriotism: in view of the war, we hereby hand over for its duration the means of production—land, factories, works—as common property, renounce the exclusive right to profit from commodities, abolish all political privileges and sacrifice them on the altar of the fatherland as long as it is in danger?… The abolition of the class struggle was, therefore, an entirely one-sided affair.

This capitulation, repeated by social democrats in the other warring countries, led thousands of workers to go to the front without protest, to kill and be killed. It was not just weakening the working class from an intellectual or political point of view, but literally decimating them, physically exterminating them:

It is our strength, our hope that is being mowed down there in swathes, day after day, like grass before the scythe.… The flower of our manhood and youthful strength, hundreds of thousands whose socialist training in England and France, in Belgium, Germany and Russia was the product of decades-long work of education and agitation, other hundreds of thousands who could have been won over to socialism tomorrow, are falling and decaying miserably on the battlefields. The fruit of the sacrifices and toil of generations over decades is destroyed in a few weeks, the elite troops of the international proletariat are cut down at the root of life.

The excuse that Germany was fighting a noble war for democracy against the evil Russian dictatorship is torn apart. That dictatorship was one of the most oppressive on earth, but the revolutionary move­ment in Russia was growing and preparing to challenge it—until the outbreak of war temporarily disorientated and suppressed it: “‘German rifles’ are crushing, not Tsarism, but its opponent.” German propaganda lamented the plight of Poles under the Russian empire, but Luxemburg—who was one of them—points out that others suffered under German rule, where “Polish children had the German ‘Our Father’ beaten into them with bloody welts on their bodies”. But what else would the warmongers do but excuse their actions as defensive?

When and where has there been a war, since so-called public opinion has played a role in government calculations, in which each and every belligerent party did not, with a heavy heart, draw the sword for the one single purpose of defending its fatherland and its own righteous cause from the shameless attack of the enemy? The legend is as much a part of warfare as powder and lead.

The war could only be understood in its global context. Luxemburg traces the development of German imperialism in particular, and its role in the international power play which formed the backdrop to the outbreak of 1914. Imperialism is “an innately international phenomenon, an indivisible whole that can only be understood in all its inter-relations”, she writes. Looked at in isolation, the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia was a clear imperialist aggression, but “Serbia itself is only a pawn in the great chess game of world politics”, and she praises the Serbian socialists who saw that it would inevitably be dragged into the overall imperialist war, “a competitive struggle of an already fully-developed capitalism for world supremacy”.

From this she draws a general conclusion on the position of nations: “in today’s imperialist milieu there can no longer be any wars of national defence generally”. It was true enough to say that the nationalism of the great powers was a fraud designed to perpetuate oppression, even when they were invoking support for smaller states under their wing. But what about the attempts then being made by Egyptians or Africans or Irish to win national independence? Far from cloaking imperialist desires, they were throwing damaging spokes into the wheels of imperial chariots. Even though opposing empires naturally attempted to profit from their rivals’ discomfort, the demand to break away from empires deserved the full support of socialists.

A strange twist on Luxemburg’s anti-nationalism comes when she claims that “The highest duty of the Social Democracy towards its fatherland demanded that it expose the real background of this imperialist war… That would have been truly national”. To a large extent, she is trying to throw back at the party leaders their own pretensions of standing up for the German people. Her claim is that ordinary Germans would suffer from the war rather than benefitting, but to couch that in a nationalist phraseology—particularly one as inextricably imperialist as German nationalism was in 1914—is confusing, at best.

(Unfortunately, Luxemburg’s true position here is grossly distorted for English speakers by a translation published in New York in 1918 and still doing the rounds in print and on line, although it is often poor and sometimes inaccurate. She wrote that as long as imperialism exists, “the right of national self-determination has nothing at all in common with its practice”, but this is translated as “there can be no ‘national self-determination’”. The same translation says that “Today the nation is but a cloak that covers imperialist desires, a battle cry for imperialistic rivalries, the last ideological measure with which the masses can be persuaded to play the role of cannon fodder in imperialistic wars.” However, the words “Today the nation” have been dropped into the middle of a sentence, changing its meaning radically. Luxemburg was writing here about “The national phrase”, which imperialism has “perverted into its opposite”.)

But would the triumph of one particular side in the war be a more favourable result for the working class? This was like making “a choice between two beatings”, says Luxemburg:

For the European proletariat as a whole, victory or defeat of either of the two warring camps would be equally disastrous from its class standpoint. For war itself as such, whatever its military outcome, means the greatest conceivable defeat for the European proletariat, and the quickest forcing of peace by the international struggle of the proletariat can bring the only possible victory for the proletarian cause.

This contrasts with the ‘revolutionary defeatist’ position of Lenin, especially, that defeat of your own side would be preferable. Any anti-war agitation tends to weaken the particular state in which it takes place: successful agitation in Germany, for instance, would restrict the capacities of the German military. Luxemburg’s own activities show clearly that she never allowed the consideration of undermining the German war effort to hold her back. But defeat for one side necessarily implies victory for the other, and she is here speaking from the standpoint of the international working class. She was right to raise the idea of a third possibility coming out on top, of workers’ revolt exhausting the resources of both sides and ending the war altogether—and the final outcome of the war was not too far at all from that.

The war was confronting humanity as a whole with an over­arching choice: “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, i.e., the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method: war”. The important thing was to learn this lesson, so that something could yet be salvaged from the slaughter:

Socialism is lost only if the international proletariat is unable to judge the depth of the fall, doesn’t learn from it.… The working class must always fearlessly look truth in the face, even the bitterest self-accusation… we will win if we have not forgotten how to learn.

What should socialists have done in August 1914? Not proclaim a revolution, but hold their nerve and speak the truth: “not ridiculous prescriptions and recipes of a technical nature, but the political watchword, clarity on the political tasks and interests of the proletariat in the war”. It is quite possible that such a stand would have proved un­popular in the first months of war hysteria. “At first we would perhaps have achieved nothing but that the honour of the German proletariat would be saved”, but even that would be no small thing. It would have maintained the socialist movement “like a rock in the roaring sea”, eventually attracting those sickened of the carnage and looking for solutions. When hatred of war connects with desire for a new world, such solutions become practical:

The madness will only stop and the bloody nightmare of hell will only disappear when the workers in Germany and France, in England and Russia finally awake from their intoxication, reach out a fraternal hand to each other, and drown the bestial chorus of warmongers and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the powerful old battle-cry of labour: Proletarians of all countries, unite!

Céard atá ó Chonradh Spartacais?

Foilsíodh an saothar seo le Rosa Luxemburg ar Eagrán 49 i Meán Fómhair 2012.

Mí na Samhna 1918, d’éirigh oibrithe is saighdiúirí amach in aghaidh réimeas an Impire Wilhelm II sa Ghearmáin, ag cur comhairlí dá gcuid féin ar bun. Thit an impireacht, agus 9 Samhain d’fhógair an Páirtí Daonlathach Sóisialta poblacht. Scaoileadh saor an sóisialaí Rosa Luxemburg agus atheagraíodh Conradh Spartacais, an t‑eagras lenar bhain sí. Scríobh sí an clár seo don Chonradh, a foilsíodh ar an bpaipéar Die Rote Fahne 14 Nollaig. Nuair a bhunaigh an Conradh is grúpaí eile Páirtí Cumannach na Gearmáine ag deireadh na bliana, glacadh leis mar chlár don pháirtí nua. Seo é an chéad aistriúchán Gaeilge air.


Ar 9 Samhain scrios oibrithe agus saighdiúirí an seanréimeas sa Ghearmáin. Seachrán fuilteach chlaíomh na Prúise an domhan a chur faoina smacht, d’imigh sé ina ghal soip ar mhachairí catha na Fraince. An bhuíon bithiúnach a chuir tine leis an domhan agus a sheol an Ghearmáin isteach i muir na fola, bhain siad deireadh a gcúrsa amach. An pobal ar cuireadh dallamullóg orthu ar feadh ceithre bliana, a rinne dearmad i seirbhís an Moloch1 ar dhualgas na sibhialtachta, an onóir agus an daonnacht, a lig leis an mí-úsáid a baineadh astu ina leithéid d’fheallghníomh, dhúisigh sé ó mharbh­shuan na gceithre bliana—ar bhéal an duibheagáin.

Ar 9 Samhain d’éirigh prólatáireacht na Gearmáine leis an gcuing náireach a chur di. Cuireadh an ruaig ar na Hohenzollern,2 toghadh comhairlí oibrithe is saighdiúirí.

Ach ní raibh sna Hohenzollern ach ionadaithe na buirgéiseachta impiriúlaí agus na dtiarnaí talún. Ceannas aicmeach na buirgéis­eachta, sin é atá ciontach as an gcogadh domhanda—sa Ghearmáin agus sa Fhrainc, sa Rúis agus i Sasana, san Eoraip agus i Meiriceá. Caipitlithe na dtíortha uile, ba shin iad fíorúdair an chinedhíothú. An caipiteal idirnaisiúnta—sin é an dia bréige doshásaithe ar caitheadh na milliúin is na milliúin íobairt bhalbh dhaonna sa chraos fuilteach ar a shon.

Ta an cogadh domhanda tar éis an rogha a fhágáil ag an saol: leanúint an chaipitleachais, cogaí nua agus titim go luath san aimhréidh is ainriail, sin nó an dúshaothrú caipitleach a chur ar ceal.

Le críoch an chogaidh dhomhanda tá a cheart chun beatha caillte ag ceannas aicmeach na buirgéiseachta. Níl sé in ann a thuilleadh an saol a threorú amach as an gcliseadh scanrúil eacnamaíochta atá fágtha ina diaidh ag an bhfleá impiriúlach.

Tá gléasanna táirgthe millte ar scála uafásach. Na milliúin oibrithe ar lár, an bunadh is fearr agus is oilte den aicme oibre. Ar fhilleadh abhaile dóibh siúd a mhair, bhí dearóile fhonóideach na dí­fhostaíochta ag fanacht leo. Bagraíonn gorta agus galar an pobal a bhánú ó fhréamh. Níl éalú ó loiceadh airgeadais an stáit de thoradh ualach uafásach na bhfiacha cogaidh.

As an míréir fhuilteach seo agus an duibheagán uaibhéalta seo, níl aon chúnamh, aon éalú, aon tarrtháil ach an sóisialachas. Ní fhéadfaidh ach réabhlóid dhomhanda na prólatáireachta eagar a chur ar an aimhréidh seo, obair agus arán a chur ar fáil don uile dhuine, deireadh a chur leis an ár atá á dhéanamh ar na pobail, síocháin, saoirse, fíorshibhialtacht a thabhairt don chine daonna faoi chois. Léirscrios ar chóras an phá! Sin é gairm na huaire. Glacadh an obair chomrádúil áit an obair pá agus an cheannais aicmigh. Caithfidh na gléasanna oibre gan a bheith mar mhonaplacht aicme a thuilleadh: caithfidh siad a bheith mar chomhshealúchas an uile dhuine. Ná bíodh daoine á ndúshaothrú ag dúshaothraithe a thuilleadh! Riar an táirgthe agus dáileadh na dtáirgí ar son na coitiantachta. Modh táirgthe an lae inniu a chur ar ceal, an dúshaothrú is gadaíocht, agus tráchtáil an lae inniu, nach bhfuil ann ach caimiléireacht.

In áit na bhfostóirí agus a gcuid sclábhaithe pá, saorchomrádaithe oibre! Gan an obair ina crá ag aon duine, ach ina dualgas ar an uile dhuine! Beatha fhiúntach don uile dhuine a chomhlíonann a dhualgas don saol. Ní bheidh an t‑ocras mar mhallacht na hoibre a thuilleadh, ach pionós an leisceora!

Ina leithéid de shaol amháin a bhaintear fuath náisiúnta agus daoirse ó fhréamh. Go gcuirtear a leithéid de shaol ar bun, beidh marú na ndaoine mar náire ar an domhan. Ansin amháin a bheidh sé le rá:

Is é an cogadh seo an ceann deiridh.

Is é an sóisialachas an t‑aon chrann seasta ag an gcine daonna ar an uair seo. Thar bhallaí an tsaoil chaipitligh is iad ag titim as a chéile, bladhmann focail an Chláir Chumannaigh mar chéalmhaine lasrach:

Sóisialachas nó titim faoin mbarbarthacht!3


Is é bunú an eagar sóisialach saoil an cúram is ábhalmhó a thit ar aicme agus réabhlóid riamh i stair an domhain. Éilíonn an cúram seo atógáil iomlán an stáit agus muirthéacht iomlán i ndúshraith eacnamaíochta is shóisialta an tsaoil.

Ní féidir an atógáil seo agus an muirthéacht seo a reachtú trí údarás, coimisiún nó parlaimint ar bith:4 ní féidir ach le sluaite an phobail féin é a ghlacadh ar láimh agus a chur i gcrích.

I ngach réabhlóid go dtí seo, mionlach beag den phobal a stiúir an cath réabhlóideach, a thug cuspóir is treoir dó, agus a bhain leas as an slua mar uirlis lena leas féin, leas an mhionlaigh, a thabhairt chun bua. Is í an réabhlóid shóisialach an chéad réabhlóid nach féidir léi an bua a bhaint ach ar son an mhóraimh mhóir agus trí mhóramh mór an lucht oibre.

Tá ar shlua na prólatáireachta, ní amháin tuiscint níos soiléire ar chuspóirí agus treoir a thabhairt don réabhlóid. Caithfidh sé féin, lena ghníomhaíocht féin céim ar chéim, an sóisialachas a thabhairt ar an saol freisin.

Is é nádúr an tsaoil shóisialaigh go stadann an slua de bheith ina shlua rialaithe, agus a mhalairt, go gcaitheann siad an saol polaitiúil is eacnamaíochta ar fad iad féin agus go stiúrann siad é faoi fhéin­cheannas saor i gcomhfhios.

Ón bpointe is airde den stát go dtí an ceantar is lú, mar sin, caithfidh slua na prólatáireachta a ghléasanna aicmeacha féin—comhairlí na n‑oibrithe is na saighdiúirí—a chur in ionad gléasanna cheannas aicmeach na buirgéiseachta a tháinig anuas chugainn—na comhairlí cónaidhme,5 parlaimintí, comhairlí áitiúla—gach suíomh a ghabháil, maoirseacht a dhéanamh ar gach feidhm, gach riachtanas stáit a thomhas de réir a leasa féin mar aicme agus cúraimí an tsóisialachais. Agus is trí idirghníomhú buan beo amháin idir sluaite an phobail agus a gcuid gléasanna, comhairle na n‑oibrithe is na saighdiúirí, is féidir lena gcuid gníomhaíochta an stát a líonadh le sprid shóisialach.

Agus ní féidir an muirthéacht eacnamaíochta a chur i bhfeidhm ach oiread ach mar phróiseas a thugann gníomh shlua na prólatáir­eachta i gcrích. Níl i reachtanna loma na n‑údarás réabhlóideach is airde ar an sóisialú ach caint san aer. Ní féidir ach leis an bpobal feoil a dhéanamh den bhriathar lena ghníomh féin. I ngleic chrua leis an gcaipiteal, aghaidh ar aghaidh i ngach monarcha, le brú díreach na sluaite, le stailceanna, lena ngléasanna ionadaíochta buana a chur ar bun is féidir leis na hoibrithe maoirseacht a dhéanamh ar an táirgeadh, agus ar deireadh é a riar i ndáiríre.

Caithfidh sluaite na prólatáireachta foghlaim le bheith, seachas ina meaisíní marbha a chuireann an caipitlí sa siúl sa phróiseas táirgthe, ina saor-riarthóirí smaointeacha gníomhacha dóibh féin ar an bpróiseas seo. Caithfidh siad meon freagrach mar bhaill ghníomhacha den choitiantacht, ar leo gach saibhreas sóisialta, a bhaint amach. Caithfidh siad dúthracht gan lasc an fhostóra, an t‑éacht is airde gan maor caipitleach, smacht gan chuing agus eagar gan cheannas a leathnú. Is iad an t‑idéalachas is airde ar son na coitiantachta, an féin­smacht is déine, fíorsprid pobail na sluaite an dúshraith mhorálta leis an saol sóisialach, ar an gcaoi chéanna gurb iad amadántacht, féin­spéis agus breabaireacht dúshraith mhorálta an tsaoil chaipitligh.

Ní féidir le slua na n‑oibrithe an meon pobail sóisialach seo a fháil, chomh maith le tuiscint agus cumas ar stiúradh an ionad sóisialach oibre, ach lena ghníomhaíocht féin, a thaithí féin.

Ní féidir sóisialú an tsaoil a chur i gcrích ach i gcathaíocht chrua gan staonadh shlua na n‑oibrithe ar fad, i ngach áit a dtugann lucht oibre is lucht caipitil, pobal is ceannas aicmeach na buirgéiseachta, aghaidh ar a chéile. An aicme oibre féin a chaithfidh fuascailt an aicme oibre a bhaint amach.


Sna réabhlóidí buirgéiseacha, ba iad doirteadh fola, sceimhle, dún­mharú polaitiúil na hairm riachtanacha i lámh na haicme ag teacht in airde.

Ní gá aon sceimhle do réabhlóid na prólatáireachta le haghaidh a cuid cuspóirí: is fuath agus gráin léi dúnmharú daoine. Ní gá di na gléasanna catha seo, mar nach daoine aonair a throideann sí ach institiúidí, mar nach ngabhann sí chun páirc an chatha le dallamullóg shaonta arb éigean di díoltas fuilteach a bhaint lena cur di. Ní haon iarracht ráscánta í ag mionlach an saol a mhúnlú de lámh laidir de réir a n‑idéil, ach gníomh shluaite an phobail ina milliúin ar gá di misean na staire a chomhlíonadh agus riachtanas na staire a chur i ngníomh.

Ach san am céanna, is í réabhlóid na prólatáireachta creill an bháis do gach daoirse agus leatrom. In aghaidh réabhlóid na próla­táireachta, mar sin, téann gach uile chaipitlí, tiarna talún, mion­bhuirgéiseach, oifigeach, gach brabúsaí is súmaire ar dhúshaothrú is ceannas aicmeach chun catha go himirt anama bonn ar aon.

Is seachrán buile é a cheapadh go nglacfaidh na caipitlithe go toilteanach le breith parlaiminte nó comhdhála náisiúnta, go ligfidh siad uathu an sealúchas, an brabach, pribhléid an dúshaothraithe go réidh. Throid gach aicme ceannais go deireadh leis an bhfuinneamh is crua ar son a cuid pribhléide. Paitrigh na Róimhe agus barúin fheodacha na meánaoise, Ridirí Marcra Shasana agus máistrí daor Mheiriceá, bóidhir na Valáice agus déantúsóirí síoda Lyons6—dhoirt siad uile na sruthanna fola, shiúil siad thar chorpáin, dúnmharú is loscadh, ghríosaigh siad cogaíocht chathartha is tréas lena gcuid pribhléide agus cumhachta a chosaint.

Scoitheann an aicme chaipitleach, mar an sliocht is deireanaí ar aicme an dúshaothraithe, brúidiúlacht, ciniceas nocht, suarachas a sinsear uile. Cosnóidh sí a dia rónaofa, a brabach agus a pribhléid dú­shaothraithe, go bun an angair le gach modh fuar mailíse atá léirithe aici i stair an choilíneachais ar fad agus sa chogadh domhanda deireanach. Tarraingeoidh sí neamh anuas agus ifreann aníos in aghaidh na prólatáireachta. Slógfaidh sí muintir na tuaithe in aghaidh na mbailte móra, gríosóidh sí sraitheanna ar gcúl de na hoibrithe in aghaidh an urgharda shóisialaigh, spreagfaidh sí sléachta le hoifigigh, iarrfaidh sí gach beart sóisialach a chur ó mhaith le míle gné de fhriotaíocht chiúin, saighdfidh sí scór Vendées faoin réabhlóid,7 gairmfidh sí an namhaid iasachta—na dúnmharfóirí Clemenceau, Lloyd George is Wilson8—mar shlánaitheoirí na tire, déanfaidh sí fothrach dóite den tír seachas an sclábhaíocht pá a ligean uathu go toilteanach.

Caithfear an cur i gcoinne seo ar fad a bhriseadh le dorn iarainn, le fuinneamh míthrócaireach. Caithfear lámh láidir réabhlóideach na prólatáireachta a chur in aghaidh lámh láiidr na frithréabhlóide buirgéisí. In aghaidh buillí, uisce faoi thalamh, cealgaireacht na buirgéiseachta, soiléire dhiongbháilte shlua na prólatáireachta faoina cuspóir, a airdeall agus a ghníomhaíocht shíorullamh. In aghaidh contúirtí bagracha na frithréabhlóide, armáil an phobail agus dí-armáil an aicme ceannais. In aghaidh trasnáil parlaiminte na buirgéiseachta, eagrú gníomhach shlua na n‑oibrithe is na saighdiúirí. In aghaidh na mílte acmhainn cumhachta de chuid an tsaoil bhuirgéisigh i ngach uile bhall, cumhacht chruinnithe dhlúthaithe mhéadaithe an aicme oibre. Tosach dlúth catha phrólatáireacht na Gearmáine ar fad: an deisceart leis an tuaisceart, na bailte móra leis an tuath, na hoibrithe leis na saighdiúirí, ceannasaíocht bheo intinne réabhlóid na Gearmáine leis an Idirnáisiúntán9—is é leathnú réabhlóid Ghearmánach na prólatáireachta amháin a fhéadfaidh an bonn eibhir a chruthú ar féidir áras an ama le teacht a thógáil air.

Is é an cath ar son an tsóisialachais an cogadh cathartha is foréigní dá bhfaca stair an domhain, agus caithfidh réabhlóid na prólatáir­eachta an chathéide riachtanach i gcomhair an chogaidh chathartha seo a ullmhú di féin, caithfidh sí an méid is gá a fhoghlaim chun catha is bua.

An chumhacht pholaitiúil uile a sholáthar do shlua dlúth an phobal oibre le haghaidh cúraimí na réabhlóide, sin é deachtóireacht na prólatáireachta, agus mar sin, an fíordhaonlathas. Ní shuíonn an sclábhaí pá le hais an chaipitlí, an prólatáireach tuaithe le hais an tiarna talún i gcomhionannas bréige chun díospóireacht parlaiminte a dhéanamh ar cheisteanna a mbáis is a mbeatha, ach slua prólatáireach na milliún ag glacadh an chumhacht stáit uile lena dhorn fhearbach, leis an aicme ceannais a bhaint anuas ó bharr ar nós an dé Túr lena ord, sin é an t‑aon daonlathas nach feall ar an bpobal é.

Le cur ar chumas na prólatáireachta na cúraimí seo a chomh­líonadh, éilíonn Conradh Spartacais:

I. Mar bhearta láithreacha leis an réabhlóid a chosaint

  1. na póilíní ar fad, oifigigh i gcoitinne, chomh maith le saighdiúirí neamhphrólatáireacha, a dhí-armáil; baill uile na n‑aicmí ceannais a dhí-armáil
  2. gach soláthar arm is armlóin, chomh maith le monarchana arm, a choigistiú ag comhairlí oibrithe is saighdiúirí
  3. an pobal fásta fireann prólatáireach ar fad a armáil mar mhílíste oibrithe; Garda Dearg a eagrú as prólatáirigh mar chuid ghníomhach den mhílíste le bheith mar fhórsa seasta cosanta na réabhlóide ar bhuillí is uisce faoi thalamh na frithréabhlóide
  4. ceannas na n‑oifigeach is na bhfo-oifigeach a chur ar ceal, smacht toilteanach na saighdiúirí a chur in ait géilliúlacht bhalbh an airm; na gnáthshaighdiúirí gach sinsear a thoghadh le ceart aisghairmthe ag am ar bith; an dlí airm a chur ar ceal
  5. na hoifigigh is na saighdiúirí athliostáilte10 a chur as gach comhairle oibrithe
  6. ionadaithe chomhairlí na n‑oibrithe is na saighdiúirí a chur in áit gléasanna polaitiúla is údaráis uile an tseanréimis
  7. cúirt réabhlóideach a cheapadh, a dtabharfar os a comhair príomhúdair an chogaidh agus a fhadaithe, na Hohenzollern, Ludendorff, Hindenburg, Tirpitz agus a gcomhchoirpigh,11 chomh maith le comhchealgairí uile na frithréabhlóide
  8. an bia uile a choigistiú láithreach le cothú an phobail a chosaint

II. I gcúrsaí polaitiúla agus sóisialta

  1. gach mionstát a chur ar ceal; poblacht aontaithe shóisialach na Gearmáine12
  2. fáil réidh le gach parlaimint is comhairle áitiúil, chomh maith lena gcuid bord is gléasanna, agus comhairlí oibrithe is saighdiúirí a gcuid feidhmeanna a ghlacadh ar láimh
  3. comhairlí oibrithe a thoghadh ar fud na Gearmáine ag an bpobal fásta ar fad, idir fhir is mhná, i mbaile mór is faoin tuath, de réir ionad oibre, chomh maith le comhairlí saighdiúirí a thoghadh ag na gnáthshaighdiúirí, gan oifigigh ná saighdiúirí athliostáilte san áireamh; ceart na n‑oibrithe is na saighdiúirí a gcuid ionadaithe a aisghairm am ar bith
  4. lárchomhairle na gcomhairlí oibrithe is saighdiúirí a thoghadh ag teachtaí na gcomhairlí oibrithe is saighdiúirí ar fud an stáit, a thoghfaidh an ardchomhairle mar an gléas is airde maidir le cumhacht dlí is feidhmithe
  5. an lárchomhairle a thionól gach trí mhí ar a laghad go sealadach—agus teachtaí á n‑atoghadh gach uair—le maoirseacht sheasta a dhéanamh ar ghníomhaíocht na hardchomhairle agus teangmháil bheo a chruthú idir sluaite na gcomhairlí oibrithe is saighdiúirí sa stát agus an gléas rialaithe is airde acu. Ceart na gcomhairlí áitiúla oibrithe is saighdiúirí a n‑ionadaithe ar an lárchomhairle a ais­ghairm am ar bith agus ionadaithe nua a chur ina n‑áit i gcás nach gcloíonn siad le meon na ndaoine a cheap iad; ceart na hard­chomhairle coimisinéirí an phobail,13 chomh maith le húdaráis is maoir stáit, a cheapadh is a bhriseadh
  6. gach idirdhealú céime, ord agus teideal a chur ar ceal; lán­chomhionannas dlíthiúil agus sóisialta an dá ghnéas
  7. dianreachtaíocht shóisialta; ciorrú an am oibre leis an dí­fhostaíocht a chosc agus i bhfianaise lagú corpartha an phobal oibre de thoradh an chogaidh dhomhanda; lá oibre sé uaire ar a mhéid
  8. an córas cothaithe, tithíochta, sláinte agus oideachais a ath­mhúnlú ó bhonn laithreach de réir meon agus sprid réabhlóid na prólatáireachta

III. Éilimh eacnamaíochta ar an bpointe

  1. sócmhainí agus teacht isteach ríoga ar fad a ghabháil don choitiantacht
  2. fiacha stáit is fiacha poiblí a chur ar neamhní, chomh maith le bannaí cogaidh i gcoitinne, ach amháin síntiúis faoi bhun leibhéil áirithe, ceaptha ag lárchomhairle na gcomhairlí oibrithe is saighdiúirí
  3. talamh gach mórfheirme is meánfheirme a choigistiú, comhar­chumainn shóisialacha talmhaíochta a bhunú faoi threoir lárnach aontaithe sa stát ar fad, mionfheirmeacha ag fanacht i seilbh na ndaoine a bhfuil siad acu go n‑aontaíonn siad leis na comhar­chumainn shóisialacha dá ndeoin féin
  4. poblacht na gcomhairlí gach banc, mianach, teilgcheárta, chomh maith le gach mórfhiontar tionsclaíochta is trachtála, a choigistiú
  5. gach maoin thar leibhéal áirithe, ceaptha ag an lárchomhairle, a ghabháil
  6. poblacht na gcomhairlí an córas poiblí iompair ar fad a ghlacadh ar láimh
  7. comhairlí monarchan a thoghadh i ngach monarcha le cúrsaí in­mheánacha na monarchan a riar, coinníollacha oibre a leagan síos, maoirseacht a dhéanamh ar an táirgeadh agus ar deireadh stiúradh na monarchan a ghlacadh ar láimh, i bpáirt le comhairlí na n‑oibrithe
  8. lárchoiste stailce a chur ar bun a chinnteoidh stiúir aontaithe, treoir shóisialta agus tacaíocht láidir trí chumhacht pholaitiúil na gcomhairlí oibrithe is saighdiúirí i gcomhar seasta le comhairlí monarchan an ghluaiseacht stailce atá ag tosú ar fud an stáit

IV. Cúraimí idirnáisiúnta

Caidreamh leis na páirtithe bráithriúla iasachta a thionscnamh láithreach, leis an réabhlóid shóisialach a chur ar bhonn idirnáisiúnta agus an tsíocháin a fhorbairt is a chinntiú leis an mbráithreacht idir­náisiúnta agus ceannairc réabhlóideach phrólatáireacht an domhain.

V. Sin é atá ó Chonradh Spartacais!

Agus mar go dteastaíonn an méid sin uaidh, mar go gcuireann sé daoine ar an airdeall, go mbrúnn sé ar aghaidh, mar gurb é coinsias sóisialach na réabhlóide é, tugann naimhde oscailte is ceilte uile na réabhlóide agus na prólatáireachta fuath dó, á chiapadh agus á mhaslú.

An chroch dó! a scairteann na caipitlithe, ag crith ar son a gcuid taisceadán.

An chroch dó! a scairteann na mionbhuirgéisigh, na maoir, na frith-Ghiúdaigh, dianghiollaí na buirgéiseachta, ag crith ar son potaí feola cheannas aicmeach na buirgéiseachta.

An chroch dó! a scairteann leithéidí Scheidemann,14 a bhfuil na hoibrithe díolta leis an mbuirgéiseacht acu ar nós Iúdáis Isceiriót, agus iad ag crith ar son boinn airgid a ceannais pholaitiúil.

An chroch dó! a thagann ar ais mar mhacalla ó shraitheanna den phobal oibre is de na saighdiúirí a bhfuil bob buailte orthu, mealladh bainte astu, atá curtha amú, nach dtuigeann go bhfuil siad ar buile lena gcuid fola is feola féin agus iad ar buile le Conradh Spartacais.

San fhuath, sna maslaí a chaitear le Conradh Sparatacais, tagann gach atá frithréabhlóideach, in aghaidh an phobail, frithshóisialta, fimíneach, drochamhrasach, doiléir le chéile. Cruthaíonn an méid sin gur ann a bhuaileann croí na réabhlóide, gur leis an todhchaí.

Ní páirtí é Conradh Spartacais atá ag iarraidh an chumhacht a bhaint amach os cionn slua na n‑oibrithe nó trí bhíthin slua na n‑oibrithe. Níl i gConradh Spartacais ach an chuid is teanntásaí den phrólatáireacht, a chuireann a gcúraimí stairiúla ar a súile do shlua leathan an phobal oibre uile ag gach cor, a sheasann ag gach céim ar leith den réabhlóid don chuspóir sóisialach deiridh agus do leas réabhlóid dhomhanda na prólatáireachta i ngach ceist náisiúnta.

Diúltaíonn Conradh Spartacais an chumhacht rialtais a roinnt le cúlaistíní na buirgéiseachta, le lucht Scheidemann is Ebert,15 mar gur léir dó gurbh ionann a leithéid de chomhar agus feall ar phrionsabail an tsóisialachais, neartú na frithréabhlóide agus martrú na réabhlóide.

Diúltóidh Conradh Spartacais an chumhacht a bhaint amach nó go mbeidh lucht Scheidemann is Ebert millte acu féin, agus na Neamhspleáigh sáinnithe i gceann caoch de bharr a gcomhoibriú leo.16

Ní ghlacfaidh Conradh Spartacais an chumhacht rialtais ar láimh go deo ach le toil ghlan shoiléir mhóramh mór shlua na prólatáir­eachta sa Ghearmáin uile, agus de bharr a dtacaíocht chomhfhiosach le dearcaí, cuspóirí is modhanna catha Chonradh Spartacais.

Ní féidir le réabhlóid na prólatáireachta soiléire is aibíocht a ghnóthú di féin ach de réir a chéile, céim ar chéim, ar bhóthar Gholgatá a taithí seirbhe féin,17 as díomua agus bua.

Ní ag tús na réabhlóide a sheasann bua Chonradh Spartacais ach ag a críoch: Is ionann é agus bua na prólatáireachta sóisialaí ina milliúin.

Seo libh, a phrólatáirigh! Chun catha! Tá saol le gabháil agaibh agus saol le troid. Sa chath aicmeach deiridh seo i stair an domhain ar son an chuspóra is airde dá bhfuil ag an gcine daonna, is é an focal faire roimh an namhaid: ordóga ar na súile agus glúine ar an gcliabhrach!18

Conradh Spartacais


  1. Seandia Seimíteach a d’éilíodh íobairt uafásach.
  2. Rítheaghlach na Gearmáine.
  3. Chríochnaigh cathanna aicmí uile na staire, a scríobh Karl Marx is Friedrich Engels i gClár an Pháirtí Chumannaigh in 1848, “le claochlú réábhlóideach an tsaoil uile nó le titim na n‑aicmí cathacha ar fad”.
  4. Bhí coimisiún ceaptha ag an rialtas Daonlathach Sóisialta le scrúdú cé na tionscail ab fhéidir a thabhairt i seilbh an stáit.
  5. Comhairle na Cónaidhme a bhí ar an gcoiste, agus ionadaithe ó na stáit éagsúla uirthi, a rialaigh impireacht na Gearmáine.
  6. Throid na Ridirí Marcra ar son réabhlóid Shasana san 1640idí. Bóidhear a thugtaí ar uasal sa Valáic (cuid den Rómáin anois) suas go dtí an naoú céad déag. Cuireadh éirithe amach ag oibrithe síoda faoi chois go fuilteach i Lyons na Fraince, go háirithe in 1831.
  7. I 1793 thosaigh ceannairc i Vendée na Fraince, ag iarraidh an rí a chur i réim arís.
  8. Ceannairí na Fraince, na Breataine, agus na Stát Aontaithe faoi seach.
  9. Thit an tIdirnáisiúntán Sóisialach as a chéile i dtús an chogaidh dhomhanda, agus dlúthpháirtíocht an aicme oibre i gcoitinne atá i gceist ag Luxemburg seachas an eagraíocht.
  10. B’éigean do gach fear sa Ghearmáin seirbhís mhíleata a dhéanamh, ach ag deireadh a dtéarma d’fhéadfaidís a gceart imeachta a ghéilleadh agus fanacht san arm dá ndeoin féin.
  11. Ba é Paul von Hindenburg ceann foirne na Gearmáine, Erich von Ludendoff ceannasaí an airm, agus Alfred von Tirpitz ceannasaí an chabhlaigh.
  12. Bhí an Ghearmáin ina cónaidhm de chuid mhaith stát beag fós.
  13. Comhairle Choimisinéirí an Phobail a tugadh ar rialtas na poblachta nua.
  14. Bhí Philip Scheidemann, duine de cheannairí an Phairtí Dhaonlathaigh Shóisialta (SPD), i gceannas ar Chomhairle Choimisinéirí an Phobail.
  15. Ba é Friedrich Ebert, duine de cheannairí an SPD, uachtarán na poblachta nua.
  16. Bhunaigh daoine a scar leis an SPD, de bharr a thacaíochta leis an gcogadh, an Páirtí Daonlathach Sóisialta Neamhspleách i 1917. Bhí ionadaithe an pháirtí seo i gcomhrialtas leis an SPD ó mhí na Samhna.
  17. Is é Golgatá ceann de na hainmneacha ar an áit ar cuireadh Críost chun báis.
  18. Dúirt an seancheannaire sóisialach Gearmánach Ferdinand Lassalle uair gur chóir an namhaid a threascairt “agus ár n‑ordóga ina shúile is ár nglúine ar a chliabhrach”.

Socialist Classics: Rosa Luxemburg, ‘On the Russian Revolution’

Socialist Classics were a feature of every issue of Red Banner from Issue 19 (July 2004) on. The series kicked off with this article by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh.

Six months into the first world war, the German empire decided in its wisdom that Rosa Luxemburg would be better off under lock and key. Two decades of revolutionary activity, directed for the most part against themselves, led the authorities in Berlin to ensure that this socialist would be behind bars for the duration. It was in prison that she learnt of the events of 1917 in Russia, and her reaction is best described in her own words: “enthusiasm coupled with the spirit of revolutionary criticism”. In the autumn of 1918 she wrote a work reflecting upon the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian revolution.

The work was addressed initially to leading members of the Spartacus League, a group set up by Luxemburg’s comrades in 1916. From her prison cell she had expressed criticisms of the Bolsheviks in power, and met with disagreement from leaders of the group. She wrote this more extensive criticism in an attempt to win them round. The work remained unpublished after her release from prison, and only saw the light of day in 1922, when it was published by Paul Levi following his expulsion from the Communist Party of Germany for criticising its disastrous policies. Senior figures in the Communist International tried to persuade him to burn the manuscript, and when they failed, did their best to downplay and discredit Luxemburg’s criticism.

Given the circumstances Luxemburg found herself in, there was a limit to the information available to her on events in Russia. But this limit shouldn’t be exaggerated: people on the outside weren’t that much better informed, and the Spartacus League did have a well-developed system of communication with her. The fact she didn’t publish the work subsequently isn’t all that significant, either. After getting out, she had only two extremely busy months left before she was assassinated in January 1919. It is sometimes claimed that she changed her mind after writing the critique, but—while this is true in regard to one of the issues she discusses—the evidence for a fundamental change of heart is very thin. The work is unfinished, with some of it in the form of rough notes, but the argument is clear.

Luxemburg opens with high praise for the Bolsheviks. Rather than being satisfied with the end of the Tsarist regime, they understood better than anyone that the working people would have to go further and take power themselves if the revolution was to solve the real problems of Russian society. Here, they recognised an essential reality of revolution:

Either it must storm ahead very quickly and resolutely, knock down all barriers with an iron hand and place its goals ever further ahead, or it is quite soon thrown back behind its feeble starting point and suppressed by the counter-revolution. There is no such thing in revolution as standing still, sticking to one point, making do with the first goal reached.… Either the locomotive drives forward full steam ahead to the most extreme point of the historical ascent, or it rolls back again of its own weight to the starting point at the bottom, and drags irredeemably down into the abyss with it those who, with their feeble powers, would hold it halfway.

If the workers hadn’t seized power in October, the result would not have been a moderate liberal democracy, but a military reign of terror, a counter-revolutionary dictatorship. The Bolsheviks therefore “won for themselves the everlasting historic merit of having, for the first time, proclaimed the final goal of socialism as the immediate programme of practical politics”. Their successful push for revolution was “the salvation of the honour of international socialism” and a huge step forward for the world’s working class. “And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism’.”

But not in every sense: Luxemburg wasn’t writing a blank cheque for the Bolsheviks. Comrades of hers had argued that criticising the Bolsheviks was disloyal, and would weaken the support German workers had shown for the Russian revolution. “Nothing is more absurd than this”, she replied. Only by thinking for themselves could workers learn from the revolution:

not uncritical apologetics but only exhaustive and thoughtful criticism is capable of bringing out the wealth of experiences and lessons.… The awakening of the revolutionary energy of the working class in Germany can never again be conjured forth… by blind faith in any spotless authority, be it that of our own ‘higher-ups’ or that of ‘the Russian example’. Not by the creation of an atmosphere of revolutionary cheerleading, but on the contrary, only by an insight into all the fearful seriousness, all the complexity of the tasks, by political maturity and independence of spirit, by the masses’ capacity for judgement—which was systematically killed by German social democracy under various pretexts—can the German proletariat’s capacity for historical action be born.

Luxemburg found fault with the Bolsheviks’ policy of encouraging small farmers to seize land for themselves from the landlords. Breaking up large estates like this rather than farming them collectively, she argued, led away from socialist agriculture rather than towards it. It created a class of small landowners who would bitterly oppose socialisation of the land.

Her big mistake here was to imagine that what happened took place at the behest of the Bolsheviks. In reality it was happening anyway, and all the Bolsheviks did was endorse the spontaneous movement in the countryside, making it into a support for the urban working class. She would seem to be proposing that they oppose themselves to this movement—a policy that could only drive the small farmers, not to mention their relations in the cities, into the hands of the counter-revolution. Instead of winning them over voluntarily to the benefits of socialist agriculture, she seems to see them as natural antagonists to be socialised from the outside.

Luxemburg’s sharpest criticism comes on what she calls “the so-called right of nations to self-determination”. For years, she had argued that supporting nations’ right to independence contradicted the work of social­ists in uniting workers across national boundaries. “It belongs to the ABC of socialist politics that, like every other form of oppression, it fights against that of one nation by another”, she writes here, but “the famous ‘right of nations to self-determination’ is nothing but hollow, petty-bourgeois phras­eology and humbug”. It had allowed the capitalists of the Ukraine, Finland and elsewhere to break their countries away from revolutionary Russia, and “the Bolsheviks have provided the ideology which has masked this campaign of counter-revolution”.

The old familiar hallmarks of left-wing slagging—implying irony with the use of quotation marks and “so-called”, hurling accusations of petty-bourgeois counter-revolution about the place—betray a weak argument here, as they usually do. Opposing the oppression of one nation by another is not possible without opposing it being part of an empire against its will. That means supporting its right to loosen that connection or break it altogether if it so chooses. Of course, it also has the right to maintain that connection, but international unity can only be based on voluntary federation. The only way to overcome the national oppression at the heart of the Tsarist empire was to bring the different nationalities together of their own free will. A more pertinent criticism of the Bolsheviks would take them to task for not always following their proclaimed policy in practice.

All through 1917 the Bolsheviks condemned the delay in establishing a constituent assembly to draw up a democratic constitution for Russia. The assembly only met after the October revolution, but was then shut down when it refused to support the revolutionary government. Luxemburg agrees with the Bolsheviks that the assembly, elected before the new revolution had sunk in, was no longer representative—but then, she argues, they should have organised fresh elections rather than abolish the assembly altogether.

The difference, though, was that in the meantime the workers’ councils had taken power. These councils—composed of workers on a workers’ wage, subject to immediate replacement by the workers who elected them—were ten times more democratic than any parliamentary assembly. The constituent assembly would have been an irrelevance at best, if not a pole of attraction for the revolution’s opponents. This is the one point on which it can safely be said that Luxemburg changed her mind. When the idea of combining workers’ councils with a parliamentary system was put forward a few months later in the German revolution, she was bitterly opposed to it.

The Bolsheviks openly repudiated the old notions of democracy, making no bones about establishing a socialist dictatorship. But, says Luxemburg, they mirrored their opponents by setting up the two in opposition to each other: “Dictatorship or democracy”. In reality, she writes, socialist revo­lution needs both:

Yes, indeed: dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its abolition, in energetic, resolute encroachments upon the well-established rights and economic relation­ships of bourgeois society, without which the socialist transformation cannot be realised. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class, i.e., it must emerge at every step out of the active participation of the masses, under their direct influence, subject to full public control, emerging out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.

The object of socialist revolution is “to create a socialist democracy in place of bourgeois democracy, not to abolish all kinds of democracy”.

“The tacit assumption” behind the idea of workers’ dictatorship minus the democracy is

that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be energetically translated into practice. This is unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—not the case.… The socialist system of society should and can only be a historical product, born out of the school of its own experience, in the hour of its accomplishment, out of the development of living history… socialism by its very nature cannot be proclaimed, introduced by decree.

Democracy is indispensable to solving the thousand and one problems to be encountered in building a socialist society, the only force capable of tackling them. So “socialist democracy is not something which begins in the promised land… It begins at the moment of seizing power”.

A vibrant workers’ democracy can never function without the freedom to meet, publish, organise, and the right to dissent from the ruling view:

Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for those who think differently. Not because of the fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is enlivening, beneficial and purifying in political freedom depends on this characteristic, and its action breaks down when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.

In the absence of full, broad democracy, the rule of the working class inevitably withers away:

Without general elections, unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly, free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere shadow 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 idealism direct and rule, among them a dozen prominent heads lead in reality, and an elite of the workforce is invited from time to time to applaud the speeches of the leaders, to approve proposed resolutions unanimously—basically, then, a clique system—a dictatorship, to be sure, only not the dictatorship of the proletariat but the dictatorship of a handful of politicians…

It is important to note here that Luxemburg is not being democratic and fluffy for the sake of it, strapping on the armour of moral righteousness. Free discussion and vibrant democracy is needed for a very practical, functional reason: socialism can’t take a single step without it. Democracy is no added extra in the socialist project, icing to decorate the cake, but the compulsory foundation of a new world. Whenever Luxemburg talked of socialism as the working class taking control of society and rebuilding it with their own hands, she meant every word of it literally. Those who mean it only in a metaphorical, figurative sense are headed in a very different direction.

It is clear that much of Luxemburg’s critique is somewhat previous. The weight of evidence concerning Russian society in 1918 points to a surpris­ingly strong workers’ democracy. The workers’ councils still counted for something, opposing points of view contended openly, all kinds of experi­ments in politics, the arts and life were carried out. But the germ of reaction was there. Luxemburg is looking at the writing on the wall, anticipating the course of events, drawing things to their logical conclusion—in the hope that a change of direction could be brought about. She is also looking to point up lessons for workers’ revolutions in general, so that future revo­lutions could avoid mistakes made in Russia.

She is far from ignoring the objective situation the Bolsheviks were working in. A country ravaged by war, famine and invasion imposed severe limits on what they could realistically do:

under such fatal conditions even the most gigantic idealism and the most storm-proof revolutionary energy are capable of realising neither democracy or socialism but only weak, distorted attempts at either.… It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and comrades if we expected of them that under such circumstances they should conjure up the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary energy and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly tough conditions.… They shouldn’t be expected to perform miracles.

But this was not how the Bolsheviks presented the case. Instead of admitting that they were forced to do certain things against their will by desperate circumstances, they tended to justify these measures as being intrinsically correct in themselves. Rather than saying: ‘We are closing down this newspaper because it is supporting the counter-revolutionary invasion; as soon as the danger has passed, we will lift the ban’, they were more likely to say: ‘Freedom of the press is a bourgeois illusion; those who oppose their petty-bourgeois ideals to the proletarian dictatorship will be ruthlessly crushed.’ Tactics became principles; temporary necessities became permanent policy; the exception became the rule.

The dangerous part begins only when they make a virtue out of a necessity, then lay down theoretically for all occasions tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and seek to recommend them to the international [proletariat] as the model of socialist tactics to be copied. When they completely needlessly get in their own light in this way, and hide their genuine, indisputable historic merit under the bushel of false steps forced upon them by necessity, they render to international socialism, for the sake of which they have fought and suffered, a poor service, for they want to place in its vault as new discoveries all the distortions prescribed in Russia by necessity and compulsion…

Luxemburg wanted to separate “the core from the incidental”. The bold revolutionary struggle of the Bolsheviks for working-class power was a lesson to socialists the world over; the mistakes and excuses were some­thing to be avoided.

But her first concern is to get her own house in order. The biggest factor in the objective weakness of the Russian revolution is “the failure of the German proletariat”. By not successfully intervening to prevent imperialist invasion of Russia, by not overthrowing their own capitalists, by not building a socialist Germany that could bring all its industrial resources to help the Russian workers, the German working class bore the heaviest responsibility for the situation. German socialists should look at the beam in their own eye, and criticise the imperfections of the Bolsheviks only to learn from their mistakes and come to their aid.

Socialist revolution isolated in one country had no chance, least of all in a country as devastated as Russia was. The responsibility that placed on the working class outside Russia was the biggest point Luxemburg wanted to make. As long as the revolution remained a purely Russian one it was doomed. The weaknesses and distortions could only be overcome if Russia became one weak link in a socialist chain: “In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia, it can only be solved internationally.” The Bolsheviks had put the question: what answer would socialists elsewhere give?

Luxemburg’s critique is relevant as long as the Russian revolution is relevant, and the Russian revolution is relevant as long as socialists want to know how and why revolutions succeed and fail. Rather than taking the easy way out and leaping forward twenty years to blame everything on the big bad Stalin, we would do well to look long and hard at the criticisms of an uncompromising revolutionary socialist before the revolution was a year old. Already, isolation was sowing the seeds of a society without demo­cracy, and a society without democracy cannot expect to be socialist.

Much of today’s left has yet to learn that democracy is the air that socialism breathes. Instead they have got their counter-revolution in before the revolution, doing their best to produce a generation of socialists who can only yelp what their leaders tell them to yelp and snarl at anyone who says different. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Luxemburg’s work is the anticipation of how well-intentioned socialists can help pave the way, in spite of themselves, for the destruction of their own ideals.

Not that Luxemburg’s criticisms are flawless. When it comes to national self-determination, and to a lesser extent land ownership, her position is closer to the counter-revolutionary policies of the 1920s than to a truly socialist approach. But her stubborn, immovable insistence that socialism means a society based on free, democratic control by a diverse working class is something all of us need to acquire. The idea that socialism is predicated on the freedom to think differently might still be too revolution­ary for us to grasp.

Through fire and water for the cause of socialism

Over a hundred years after her death, a huge amount of Rosa Luxemburg‘s writings have yet to be translated into English. As an attempt to ready the situation a little, these three previously untranslated articles of hers, dating from the German revolution, were published in Red Banner 9 in March 2001.

Mutinies spread through the armed forces as it became clear that the German empire would lose the first world war and, on 9 November 1918, the Kaiser abdi­cated and a republic was established. Luxemburg herself was freed from prison, where she had been detained for most of the war. These three articles in Die Rote Fahne, paper of the newly-formed Communist Party of Germany, address the problems that arose in the course of the German revolution. On 15 January 1919, only days after the last of these articles was written, Luxemburg was murdered by counter-revolutionary officers

National Assembly or Government of Workers’ Councils?

[17 December 1918]

Thus reads the second item on the agenda of the national conference of workers’ and soldiers’ councils,1 and thus, truly, is the cardinal question of the revolution at the moment put. Either national assembly or all power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils; either the renunciation of socialism or sharper class struggle, in full battle dress, by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. That is the dilemma.

An idyllic plan, indeed: to realise socialism in a parliamentary manner, by simple majority decision! What a shame that this sky-blue fantasy from cloud cuckoo land fails to reckon even with the historical experience of the bourgeois revolution, let alone the specific character of the proletarian revolution.

How do things stand in England? There is the cradle of bourgeois par­liamentarism, there it developed earliest and to its fullest power. When the hour of the first modern bourgeois revolution struck in England in 1649, the English parliament already looked back on a history of over three hun­dred years. The parliament then became, from the first moment of the revolution, its centre and bulwark, its headquarters. The famous Long Parliament—in whose womb every phase of the English revolution, from the first skirmish between the opposition and the royal power to the trial and execution of Charles Stuart, was born—this parliament was an un­surpassed, flexible tool in the hands of the rising bourgeoisie.

And what resulted? This very parliament had to create a separate ‘par­liamentary army’, commanded in the field by parliamentary generals chosen from its midst, in order to vanquish feudalism, the army of the loyal ‘cava­liers’, in long, tough, bloody civil war. It was not in the debates in West­minster Abbey,2 however much the intellectual centre of the revolu­tion it was, but on the battlefields of Marston Moor and Naseby; not by polished parliamentary speeches but by the peasant cavalry, by Cromwell’s ‘iron­sides’, that the fate of the English revolution was decided. And its course led from the parliament through the civil war to the forcible ‘purging’ of the parliament twice, and finally to Cromwell’s dictatorship.

And in France? It was there that the idea of the national assembly was first born. It was a brilliant, world-historical inspiration of the class instinct expounded by Mirabeau and others in 1789: The three ‘estates’ up to then always isolated—nobility, clergy and ‘the third estate’—must henceforth meet in common in national assembly. This assembly was, precisely by virtue of the common meeting of the estates, a tool of the bourgeois class struggle. Together with powerful minorities of the two higher estates, the ‘third estate’—that is, the revolutionary middle class—had a compact majority in the national assembly from the beginning.

And, once again, what happened? The Vendée; the emigration; the gen­erals’ betrayal; the clergy’s notes; the uprising in fifty départements; the allied war of feudal Europe; finally, as the only means of securing the victory of the revolution, the dictatorship and, as its conclusion, the reign of terror!

That’s how little use a parliamentary majority was in fighting out the bourgeois revolution! And of course, what is the antagonism between bourgeoisie and feudalism next to the gaping abyss that today yawns between labour and capital! What is the class consciousness on both sides of the contenders who took to the field against each other in 1649 or 1789 compared with the ineradicable mortal hatred that today burns between the proletariat and the capitalist class! Not for nothing did Karl Marx hold his scientific lantern up to the economic and political workings of bourgeois society. Not for nothing did he throw light upon their particular deeds and behaviour, down to the minutest change in their feelings and thoughts, as the emanation of the great basic fact that they draw their existence like a vampire from the blood of the proletariat.

Not for nothing did August Bebel cry out at the conclusion of his cele­brated speech to the Dresden party congress: “I am and remain a mortal enemy of bourgeois society!”3

It is the last great battle, to decide whether exploitation shall exist or not, a turning point in human history, a battle in which there can be no evasion, no compromise, no mercy.

And this final battle, which in the magnitude of its task surpasses all that has come before, is to accomplish what no class struggle and no revo­lution has ever accomplished: to dissolve the death throes of two worlds in a gentle whisper of parliamentary wars of words and majority resolutions!

Of course parliamentarism was an arena of class struggle for the prole­tariat while the tranquil routine of bourgeois society lasted: It was the tribune around which the masses gathered around the flag of socialism could be trained for the battle. Today we stand in the midst of the proletar­ian revolution; today the task is to put the axe to the root of capitalist exploitation itself. Bourgeois parliamentarism, like the bourgeois class rule which is its principal aim, has forfeited its right to existence. Today the class struggle takes to the field in its undisguised, naked form. Capital and labour have no more to say to each other; they have only to seize each other in an iron grip and decide in a final struggle who will be thrown to the ground.

The words of Lassalle4 apply now more than ever: The revolutionary deed is always to tell it like it is. And this is how it is: here labour—there capital! No hypocritical talk of amicable negotiation when it is a matter of life and death; no victories for common interest when people are forced to take one side or the other. Clearly, openly, honestly, and strong by virtue of clarity and honesty, must the proletariat, constituted as a class, gather all political power in its hands.

‘Equal political rights, democracy!’ the great and small prophets of bourgeois class rule have sung to us in chorus for decades.

And ‘equal political rights, democracy!’ the lackeys of the bourgeoisie, the Scheidemanns,5 sing back to them like an echo.

Yes, and only now can they become a reality. The word ‘equal political rights’ only becomes flesh when economic exploitation is got rid of root and branch. And ‘democracy’, the rule of the people, can only begin when the working people seize political power.

The task is to put the words of practical criticism that have been abused by the bourgeois classes for a century and a half into historical practice. The task is to make true for the first time the ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ proclaimed by the middle classes in France in 1789—by abolishing the class rule of the middle class. And the first act of this saving deed will be a matter of placing on the record before the whole world and the centuries of world history: What passed for equal rights and democracy up to now—parliament, national assembly, equal suffrage—was lies and deceit! All power in the hands of the working masses as a revolutionary weapon to smash capitalism—that alone is real equal rights, that alone is real democracy!

Neglected Duties

[8 January 1919]

Since 9 November the revolutionary wave has periodically hit against the same wall: the Ebert-Scheidemann government.6 The occasion, the form, the capacity of the collisions, in each of the revolutionary crises we have experienced for eight weeks now, have varied. But the call ‘Down with Ebert-Scheidemann!’ is the keynote of all crises up to now and the slogan in which they all end, the slogan which resounds ever louder, more unani­mous, more emphatic from the masses.

This is, of course, only natural. The continued development of the revolution labours under the fundamental mistake of 9 November: that at the summit of the revolutionary government people were installed who, up to the last minute, had done all in their power to prevent the outbreak of the revolution, and who, after its outbreak, installed themselves at its summit with the clear intention of strangling it at the first available opportunity.

If the revolution is to travel further along its course, if it is to go on from stage to stage in its development, to fulfil its historic tasks—the abo­lition of bourgeois class rule and the realisation of socialism—then the wall that stands against it, the Ebert-Scheidemann government, must be removed.

This special task cannot be dodged by the revolution; all the experi­ences of the eight weeks of revolutionary history flow into this task. The specific provocations of the Ebert government—6 December, the swearing-in of the Troops of the Guard, 24 December, the latest plot against the police presi­dent7—they all drive the revolutionary masses to the hard, bare, inexorable alternative: Either the revolution should abandon its proletarian character, its socialist mission, or Ebert, Scheidemann and their hangers-on must be driven from power.

The brightest masses of the proletariat in Berlin and in the revolution’s main centres in the country have grasped this. This clear, sharp realisation rings out in the impassioned, powerful call from hundreds of thousands of throats: Down with Ebert-Scheidemann! That is the gain, the maturity, the progress that the latest experiences have brought us.

But what is not clear, where the weakness and immaturity of the revo­lution still hold sway, is how to conduct the struggle to remove the Ebert government, how to translate the stage of inner maturity already reached by the revolution into actions and relations of power. Never have these weak­nesses and shortcomings been so strikingly demonstrated than in the last three days.

Sweeping away the Ebert-Scheidemann government does not mean storming the imperial chancellor’s palace and banishing or arresting a couple of people; it means above all seizing the actual positions of power, and holding and using them.

But what have we seen in these three days? All that has really been achieved is: the reappointment of the police president, the occupation of Vorwärts, the occupation of the WTB and the bourgeois newspaper offices, all of which were the spontaneous work of the masses.8 What have the bodies that stood, or purported to stand, at the head of the masses in these days made of it: the revolutionary shop stewards and the Greater Berlin executive of the USP?9 They have neglected the most elementary rules of revolutionary action, for instance:

1. When the masses occupied Vorwärts, it was the duty of the revolu­tionary shop stewards and of the Greater Berlin executive of the USP, who ‘officially’ purport to represent the workers of Berlin, to ensure immedi­ately an editorial direction corresponding to the spirit of the revolutionary workers of Berlin. But what has become of the editors? What are Däumig, Ledebour—journalists and editors by reputation and calling10—doing, especially now when the left of the USP possesses no paper; why do they desert the masses? Was it a more pressing business to ‘advise’ instead of acting?

2. When the masses occupied Wolff’s Telegraph Office, it was the immediate duty of the workers’ revolutionary organs to utilise the tele­graph office for the revolution, to publicise to the masses of comrades in the country news of events and the prevailing situation in Berlin. Only in this way can an intellectual connection be made between the Berlin workers and the revolutionary movement in the whole country, without which the revolution cannot win either here or there.

3. When you stand up against the Ebert-Scheidemann government in the sharpest struggle, you cannot at the same time enter into ‘negotiations’ with that same government. Let Haase’s crowd—Oskar Cohn, Zietz, Kautsky, Breitscheid and the like11—waver, seize every opportunity to hastily pick up the threads again with Ebert’s crowd, from whom they have separated with heavy hearts. The revolutionary shop stewards, for their part, they, who are in touch with the masses, know very well that Ebert and Scheidemann are mortal enemies of the revolution. Do you negotiate with a mortal enemy? These negotiations of course can only lead to one of two things: either to a compromise or—more likely—simply to procrastination which Ebert’s crowd will take advantage of to prepare the most brutal measures.

4. When the masses were called on to the street, to be at the ready, then they should have been told clearly and distinctly what they were to do, or at least what was going on, what both friend and foe were doing and planning. In times of revolutionary crisis it goes without saying that the masses belong on the street. They are the revolution’s only protection, its only guarantee. When the revolution is in danger—and it is now, to the highest degree!—then it is the duty of the proletarian masses to be on guard where their power manifests itself: on the street! Their very pres­ence, their contact with each other is a threat and a warning to all open and disguised enemies of the revolution: Watch out!

But the masses must not be simply called upon; they must be politically active. They must above all, whatever happens, be called upon to decide. Were the revolutionary shop stewards, were the Greater Berlin executive of the USP not forced to stick to the resolution to enter negotiations with Ebert and Scheidemann, in front of the masses gathered in the Siegesallee?12 They heard such a resounding response that all desire for discussions deserted them!

The masses are prepared to support any revolutionary action, to go through fire and water for the cause of socialism. A clear watchword should be given to them, a consistent, determined attitude pointed out to them. The workers’ idealism, the soldiers’ loyalty to the revolution can only be strengthened by determination and clarity in their leading organs and their policy. And today that means a policy that knows no wavering, no half-measures, only the keynote: Down with Ebert-Scheidemann! One more lesson!

Germany was the classic land of organisation and even more of organ­isational fanaticism, indeed of organisational arrogance. For the sake of ‘organisation’, the spirit, the aims, the capacity for action of the movement has been let go. And what do we see today? In the most important moments of the revolution the famous ‘talent for organisation’ was the first to fail, in the most pathetic way. Organising revolutionary actions is obviously quite different to ‘organising’ elections to the Reichstag or the labour court according to the rules and regulations. The organisation of revolutionary actions must and can only be learnt in the revolution itself, just as swimming can only be learnt in the water. That is what historical experi­ence is for! But experience also has to be learnt from.

The experience of the last three days calls upon the workers’ leading organs in a louder voice: Don’t talk! Don’t advise! Don’t negotiate! Act!

The Failure of the Leaders

[11 January 1919]

Events in Berlin have taken a turn that demands the sharpest criticism and the most earnest consideration from the working masses.

We have in the course of recent days openly and distinctly declared that the leadership of Berlin’s mass movement was extremely lacking in de­termination, energy and revolutionary spirit. We have clearly said that the leadership is way behind the activity and battle-readiness of the masses. Not only inside these leading bodies, by initiative and persuasion, but also outside—in the Rote Fahne—by criticism, we have done everything to drive the movement forward, to spur on the revolutionary shop stewards in the big factories to energetic steps.

However, all exertions and attempts have ultimately been frustrated by the faint-hearted and wavering conduct of those bodies. After four days of allowing the most splendid moral and fighting energy of the masses to fizzle out and be frittered away through sheer lack of direction, after shaking the prospects of the revolutionary struggle extremely heavily and strengthening the Ebert-Scheidemann government’s position extremely effectively by twice entering negotiations with the government, the revolu­tionary shop stewards finally decided on the night of Wednesday to Thurs­day to break off the negotiations and initiate battle all along the line. The slogan General strike was restored along with the slogan To arms!

But this was also the only achievement to which the revolutionary shop stewards roused themselves.

It goes without saying that when you launch the slogan of general strike and arming of the masses, you have to do everything to ensure the ener­getic implementation of the slogan. The shop stewards have undertaken to do no such thing! They reassured themselves with the bare slogan and—decided immediately on Thursday evening to enter negotiations with Ebert and Scheidemann for the third time!

This time the unification movement that has got underway among the workers of the Schwarzkopf works and other big factories13 provided the desired pretext to call off again the struggle that had only just been properly started. The workers of the Schwarzkopf works, of AEG, of Knorr Brakes belong to the elite troops of Berlin’s revolutionary proletariat and there is no doubt that they have the best intentions. But in this case the workers are the object of a puppet show whose wirepullers are Haase’s crowd: Oscar Cohn, Dittman and others.14 While these people demagogi­cally employ the popular catchphrases ‘unity’ and ‘no bloodshed’, they want to paralyse the fighting energy of the masses, sow confusion and resolve the decisive revolutionary crisis into a rotten compromise.

It is clear to everyone who does not want to be deceived that this unifi­cation racket engineered by the USP is the greatest conceivable service that could be rendered in the present situation to Ebert and Scheidemann. Hanging in the air by themselves, trembling before the daring trial of strength with the workers, only partially and reluctantly supported by the wavering troops, grumbled at suspiciously by the bourgeoisie, the traitors to socialism have in recent days gone through the most burdensome hours of their brief governmental glory. The powerful appearance of the masses on the street, the turn brought about by the government’s particularly brutal provocation in the Eichhorn affair, have taken these adventurers to task. Already they had partially lost themselves, showing all the irreso­lution, the fumbling uncertainty of their counter-revolutionary measures in recent days.

Then came to them as a saving respite the negotiations and finally the unification movement. The USP here proved again to be the saving angel of the counter-revolution. Haase and Dittman have resigned from the Ebert government, but they advocate on the street the same policy that acted as a figleaf for the Scheidemanns.

And the left wing of the USP supports and participates in this policy! The conditions for the recently terminated negotiations, which the revolu­tionary shop stewards accepted, were formulated by Ledebour. This side demanded, as the price for the capitulation of the workers, among other things the withdrawal of the individuals Ebert, Scheidemann, Noske and Landsberg from the government.15 As if this were a question of individuals and not a definite policy! As if it didn’t amount merely to the masses being confused and led astray, to pushing the typical and well-known representa­tives of the Scheidemanns’ infamous policy away from centre stage and replacing them with some colourless extras, who remain the straw men for the same policy while the Eberts and Scheidemanns act as puppet masters behind the scenes and so avoid the judgement of the masses!

One way or another everything the USP has initiated, the whole policy of negotiation that the revolutionary shop stewards participated in, comes to a capitulation of the revolutionary workers, to a glossing over of the inner contradictions and inconsistencies. It is the policy of 9 November, that wants to rewind the situation and the political agreement of the masses that has matured over eight weeks!

It goes without saying that the Communist Party did not participate in this shameful policy and disclaimed all responsibility for it. We look upon it as our duty to drive forward the cause of the revolution, to stand with iron energy against all attempts to confuse the issue, and to warn the masses by ruthless criticism against the dangers of the revolutionary shop stewards’ policy of delay and the USP’s policy of the marsh.

The crisis of recent days shouted to the masses lessons of the highest importance and energy. The state of defective leadership up to now, the failed organisational centres of the Berlin workers, have become untenable. If the cause of the revolution is to go forward, if the victory of the proletar­iat, of socialism, is to be more than a dream, then the revolutionary workers must create leading organs for themselves that are equal to the task, that understand how to channel and utilise the fighting energy of the masses. But above all the immediate future must be dedicated to liqui­dat­ing the USP, this rotten corpse poisoned by the decomposition of the revolution. The showdown with the capitalist class in Germany first of all takes the form of breaking with Scheidemann and Ebert, who are the pro­tective cover of the bourgeoisie. And breaking with the Scheidemanns requires the liquidation of the USP, who act as the protective cover of Ebert and Scheidemann.

Clarity; sharper, more ruthless struggle against all attempts to confuse, to reconcile, to go into the marsh; concentration of the masses’ revolution­ary energy and creation of organs suitable to lead them in the battle—these are the burning tasks of the immediate period, these are the significant lessons from the last five days of more powerful charges by the masses and the most pathetic failures of the leaders.

1 Workers’ and soldiers’ councils spread across Germany in November 1918. Their first general congress was taking place in Berlin from 16-21 December.
2 Luxemburg has mistaken the Palace of Westminster here for Westminster Abbey.
3 Bebel (1840-1914), a pioneering leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), made this statement at the party’s congress in 1903.
4 Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64), a pioneering leader of the German workers’ movement.
5 Philipp Scheidemann was an SPD minister in the government that took power on 9 November.
6 The SPD leader Friedrich Ebert was prime minister of the new republic.
7 On 6 December right-wing officers attempted a coup. The Troops of the Guard were a reactionary regiment sworn in on 10 December. On 24 December gov­ernment troops launched an unsuccessful attack on the People’s Naval Division in Berlin. On 4 January the government sacked Emil Eichhorn, a socialist who had taken command of the Berlin police since the revolution; thousands of workers demonstrated in his support.
8 On 6 January workers seized newspaper offices, including that of the SPD paper Vorwärts, as well as Wolff’s Telegraph Office (WTB).
9 The revolutionary shop stewards’ movement originated in strikes in Berlin in 1917 and 1918, and played an important part in the revolution. The Independ­ent Social Democratic Party (USP) was set up in 1917: it was to the left of the SPD but not revolutionary. It had originally joined the SPD in the government in November, but its ministers resigned the following month.
10 Ernst Däumig and Georg Ledebour were leading figures on the left wing of the USP.
11 Leading USP members.
12 Berlin’s mass demonstration against Eichhorn’s dismissal marched to the Siegesallee.
13 The movement called for a united government of all left-wing parties.
14 Hugo Haase and Wilhelm Dittman had been USP ministers in November and December.
15 Gustav Noske and Otto Landsberg were also SPD ministers.

Revolutionary Lives: Rosa Luxemburg

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 today

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!