By Frank Jackman
History in the conditional, what might have happened if this or that thing, event, person had swerved this much or that, is always a tricky proposition. Tricky as reflected in this piece’s commemorative headline. Rosa Luxemburg the acknowledged theoretical wizard of the German Social-Democratic Party, the numero uno party of the Second, Socialist International, which was the logical organization to initiate the socialist revolution before World War II and Karl Liebknecht, the hellfire and brimstone propagandist and public speaker of that same party were assassinated in separate locale on the orders of the then ruling self-same Social-Democratic Party. The chasm between the Social-Democratic leaders trying to save Germany for “Western Civilization” in the wake of the “uncivilized” socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 had grown that wide that it was as if they were on two different planets, and maybe they were.
(By the way I am almost embarrassed to mention the term “socialist revolution” these days when people, especially young people, would be clueless as to what I was talking about or would think that this concept was so hopelessly old-fashioned that it would meet the same blank stares. Let me assure you that back in the day, yes, that back in the day, many a youth had that very term on the tips of their tongues. Could palpably feel it in the air. Hell, just ask your parents, or grandparents.)
Okay here is the conditional and maybe think about it before you dismiss the idea out of hand if only because the whole scheme is very much in the conditional. Rosa and Karl, among others made almost every mistake in the book before and during the Spartacist uprising in some of the main German cities in late 1918 after the German defeat in the war. Their biggest mistake before the uprising was sticking with the Social Democrats, as a left wing, when that party had turned at best reformist and eminently not a vehicle for the socialist revolution, or even a half-assed democratic “revolution” which is what they got with the overthrow of the Kaiser. They broke too late, and subsequently too late from a slightly more left-wing Independent Socialist Party which had split from the S-D when that party became the leading war party in Germany for all intents and purposes and the working class was raising its collective head and asking why.
The big mistake during the uprising was not taking enough protective cover, not keeping the leadership safe, keeping out of sight like Lenin had in Finland when things were dicey in 1917 Russia and fell easy prey to the Freikorps assassins. Here is the conditional, and as always it can be expanded to some nth degree if you let things get out of hand. What if, as in Russia, Rosa and Karl had broken from that rotten (for socialism) S-D organization and had a more firmly entrenched cadre with some experience in independent existence. What if the Spartacists had protected their acknowledged leaders better. There might have been a different trajectory for the aborted and failed German left-wing revolutionary opportunities over the next several years, there certainly would have been better leadership and perhaps, just perhaps the Nazi onslaught might have been stillborn, might have left Munich 1923 as their “heroic” and last moment.
Instead we have a still sad 100th anniversary of the assassination of two great international socialist fighters who headed to the danger not away always worthy of a nod and me left having to face those blank stares who are looking for way forward but might as well be on a different planet-from me.
HONOR THE THREE L’S-LENIN, LUXEMBURG, LIEBKNECHT
Every January leftists honor three revolutionaries who died in that month, V.I. Lenin of Russia in 1924, Karl Liebknecht of Germany and Rosa Luxemburg of Poland in 1919 murdered after leading the defeated Spartacist uprising in Berlin. Lenin needs no special commendation. I made my political points about the heroic Karl Liebknecht and his parliamentary fight against the German war budget in World War I in this space earlier (see review in April 2006 archives) so I would like to make some special points here about the life of Rosa Luxemburg. These comments come at a time when the question of a woman President is the buzz in the political atmosphere in the United States in the lead up to the upcoming 2008 elections. Rosa Luxemburg, who died almost a century ago, puts all such pretenders to so-called ‘progressive’ political leadership in the shade.
The early Marxist movement, like virtually all progressive political movements in the past, was heavily dominated by men. I say this as a statement of fact and not as something that was necessarily intentional or good. It is only fairly late in the 20th century that the political emancipation of women, mainly through the granting of the vote earlier in the century, led to mass participation of women in politics as voters or politicians. Although, socialists, particularly revolutionary socialists, have placed the social, political and economic emancipation of women at the center of their various programs from the early days that fact was honored more in the breech than the observance.
All of this is by way of saying that the political career of the physically frail but intellectually robust Rosa Luxemburg was all the more remarkable because she had the capacity to hold her own politically and theoretically with the male leadership of the international social democratic movement in the pre-World War I period. While the writings of the likes of then leading German Social Democratic theoretician Karl Kautsky are safely left in the basket Rosa’s writings today still retain a freshness, insightfulness and vigor that anti-imperialist militants can benefit from by reading. Her book Accumulation of Capital alone would place her in the select company of important Marxist thinkers.
But Rosa Luxemburg was more than a Marxist thinker. She was also deeply involved in the daily political struggles pushing for left-wing solutions. Yes, the more bureaucratic types, comfortable in their party and trade union niches, hated her for it (and she, in turn, hated them) but she fought hard for her positions on an anti-class collaborationist, anti-militarist and anti-imperialist left-wing of the international social democratic movement throughout this period. And she did this not merely as an adjunct leader of a women’s section of a social democratic party but as a fully established leader of left-wing men and women, as a fully socialist leader. In fact one of the interesting things about her life is how little she wrote on the women question as a separate issue from the broader socialist question of the emancipation of women. Militant women today take note.
One of the easy ways for leftists, particularly later leftists influenced by Stalinist ideology, to denigrate the importance of Rosa Luxemburg’s thought and theoretical contributions to Marxism was to write her off as too soft on the question of the necessity of a hard vanguard revolutionary organization to lead the socialist revolution. Underpinning that theme was the accusation that she relied too much on the 'spontaneous' upsurge of the masses as a corrective to either the lack of hard organization or the impediments reformist socialist elements throw up to derail the revolutionary process. A close examination of her own organization, the Socialist Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, shows that this was not the case; this was a small replica of a Bolshevik-type organization. That organization, moreover, made several important political blocs with the Russian Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the defeat of the Russian revolution of 1905. Yes, there were political differences between the organizations, particularly over the critical question for both the Polish and Russian parties of the correct approach to the right of national self-determination, but the need for a hard organization does not appear to be one of them.
Furthermore, no less a stalwart Bolshevik revolutionary than Leon Trotsky, writing in her defense in the 1930’s, dismissed charges of Rosa’s supposed ‘spontaneous uprising’ fetish as so much hot air. Her tragic fate, murdered with the complicity of her former Social Democratic comrades, after the defeated Spartacist uprising in Berlin in 1919 (at the same time as her comrade, Karl Liebknecht), had causes related to the smallness of the group, its political immaturity and indecisiveness than in its spontaneousness. If one is to accuse Rosa Luxemburg of any political mistake it is in not pulling the Spartacist group out of Kautsky’s Independent Social Democrats (itself a split from the main Social Democratic party during the war, over the war issue ) sooner than late 1918. However, as the future history of the communist movement would painfully demonstrate revolutionaries have to take advantage of the revolutionary opportunities that come their way, even if not the most opportune or of their own making.
All of the above controversies aside, let me be clear, Rosa Luxemburg did not then need nor does she now need a certificate of revolutionary good conduct from today’s leftists, the reader of this space or this writer. For her revolutionary opposition to World War I when it counted, at a time when many supposed socialists had capitulated to their respective ruling classes including her comrades in the German Social Democratic Party, she holds a place of honor. Today, as we face the fourth year of the war in Iraq we could use a few more Rosas, and a few less tepid, timid parliamentary opponents. For this revolutionary opposition she went to jail like her comrade Karl Liebknecht. For revolutionaries it goes with the territory. And even in jail she wrote, she always wrote, about the fight against the ongoing imperialist war (especially in the Junius pamphlets on the need for a new International). Yes, Rosa was at her post then. And she died at her post later in the Spartacist fight doing her internationalist duty trying to lead the German socialist revolution that would have gone a long way to saving the Russian Revolution. This is a woman leader I could follow who, moreover, places today’s bourgeois women parliamentary politicians in the shade. As the political atmosphere gets heated up over the next couple years, remember what a real fighting revolutionary woman politician looked like. Remember Rosa Luxemburg, the Rose of the Revolution.