SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 224 Dec-Jan 2018/19

The revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg

On 15 January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the finest brains of the German working class and its most heroic figures, were brutally murdered by the bloodthirsty, defeated German military, backed to the hilt by the cowardly social-democratic leaders. In edited extracts from an article first published in Socialism Today No.125, PETER TAAFFE looks at Luxemburg’s inspirational, revolutionary legacy.

The murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht were decisive in the defeat of the German revolution. They were also linked to the victory of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in 1933. Wilhelm Canaris, the naval officer who assisted the escape of one of Rosa’s murderers, was to command the Abwehr, the Nazis’ military intelligence. Other luminaries of the Nazi regime were similarly blooded at this time for the future murderous activities in Germany and throughout Europe. The political power behind the throne was Major Kurt von Schleicher, the German chancellor in 1932 who opened the door for the Nazis. But, in all probability, had the German revolution triumphed, history would not have known these figures or the horrors of fascism. Rosa Luxemburg, as a top leader and Marxist theoretician, could have played a crucial, even decisive, role in events up to 1923 and the revolution had she not been cruelly cut down.

Rosa Luxemburg deserves special attention because of the colossal contribution she made to the understanding of Marxist ideas and their application to movements of the working class. Many have attacked Rosa Luxemburg for her ‘false methods’, particularly her alleged lack of understanding of the need for a revolutionary party and organisation. Among them were Joseph Stalin and Stalinists in the past. Others claim her as their own because of her emphasis on the spontaneous role of the working class. That seems to correspond to an anti-party mood, particularly among the younger generation – a product of the revulsion at the bureaucratic heritage of Stalinism and its echoes in the ex-social democratic parties. But an all-sided analysis of Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas, taking into account the historical situation in which they developed, demonstrates that the claims of both these camps are false.

Of course, she made mistakes: ‘Show me someone who never makes a mistake and I will show you a fool’. Yet there is a body of work which remains fresh and relevant for today. For instance, her pamphlet, Reform and Revolution (1899), is not just an exposition of the general ideas of Marxism counterposed to reformist, incremental change to effect socialist change. It was written in opposition to the main theoretician of ‘revisionism’, Eduard Bernstein, who although originally a Marxist – a friend of the co-founder of scientific socialism, Friedrich Engels – under the pressure of the boom of the late 1890s and early 20th century, attempted to revise the ideas of Marxism. His famous aphorism, "The movement is everything, the final goal nothing", represented an attempt to reconcile the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) with what was an expanding capitalism at that stage.

Rosa Luxemburg refuted his ideas and adds to our understanding of capitalism then, and to some extent now, by analysing the relationship between reform and revolution (which should not be counterposed to each other, from a Marxist point of view) and many other issues.

Social democracy supports the war

Moreover, Luxemburg was among the very few who recognised the ideological atrophy of German social democracy prior to the first world war. This culminated in the catastrophe of SPD deputies voting for war credits for German imperialism in the Reichstag (parliament) – originally, with the single exception of Karl Liebknecht, joined later by Otto Rühle. The SPD and trade union leaders had become accustomed to compromise and negotiations within the framework of rising capitalism. This meant that the prospects for socialism, specifically socialist revolution, were relegated to the mists of time in their consciousness.

The increasing power of the working class was reflected in the SPD and the unions. But this was combined with the smothering and underestimation of this power by the SPD leaders, indeed, a growing hostility to the revolutionary possibilities which would inevitability break out at some future date. Rosa Luxemburg increasingly came into collision with the SPD machine, whose stultifying effect she contrasted to the social explosions in the first Russian revolution of 1905-07.

Luxemburg was a real internationalist, participating in the revolutionary movements in three countries. Originally a Pole, she was a founder of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland, a participant in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, a naturalised German and prominent member of the SPD. She compared the flair and energy from below in Russia, witnessed at first hand, to the increasingly bureaucratic machine of the party and unions in Germany. She argued that this could become a colossal obstacle to the working class taking power in the event of a revolutionary eruption.

In this sense, she was more far-sighted even than Lenin, who was passionately absorbed in Russian affairs and saw the SPD as the model for the parties of the Second International – and its leaders, such as Karl Kautsky, as teachers. Leon Trotsky wrote: "Lenin considered Kautsky as his teacher and stressed this everywhere he could. In Lenin’s work of that period and for a number of years following, one does not find a trace of criticism in principle directed against the Bebel-Kautsky tendency".

Lenin recognised that there would be opportunist trends within mass parties of the working class but he compared the Mensheviks in Russia with the right-wing revisionism of Bernstein, not with Kautskyism. That lasted up to the SPD’s vote in favour of war credits on 4 August 1914. Indeed, when Lenin saw an issue of the SPD paper, Vorwärts, supporting war credits, initially he considered it a forgery by the German general staff. Rosa Luxemburg was not so unprepared as she had been involved in a protracted struggle with right-wing SPD leaders, but also with ‘left’ and ‘centrist’ elements like Kautsky.

Spontaneous mass action

It was the immense power of the SPD, and the inertia of its top-heavy bureaucracy in the face of looming sharp changes in Germany and Europe, which led to one of Luxemburg’s best-known works, The Mass Strike (1906). This was a summing up of the first Russian revolution from which Luxemburg drew both political and organisational conclusions. It is a profoundly interesting analysis of the role of the masses as the driving force, of their spontaneous character, in the process of revolution. In emphasising the independent movement and will of the working class against "the line and march of officialdom", she was correct in a broad historical sense.

Many revolutions have been made in the teeth of opposition and even sabotage by the leaders of the workers’ own organisations. In the revolutionary events of 1936 in Spain, while the workers of Madrid initially demonstrated for arms, which their socialist leaders refused to supply, the workers of Barcelona rose spontaneously and smashed Franco’s forces within 48 hours. This ignited a social revolution which swept through Catalonia and Aragon to the gates of Madrid, with four fifths of Spain temporarily in the hands of the working class. In Chile in 1973, on the other hand, where the workers listened to their leaders and remained in the factories as Augusto Pinochet executed his coup, they were systematically rounded up and slaughtered.

We also saw a spontaneous revolutionary explosion in France in 1968 when ten million workers occupied the factories for a month. The leaders of the Communist Party and the ‘Socialist’ Federation, rather than seeking victory through a revolutionary programme of workers’ councils and a workers’ and farmers’ government, lent all their efforts to derailing this magnificent movement. In Portugal in 1974, the revolution swept away the Marcelo Caetano dictatorship and, in its first period, gave an absolute majority of votes to those standing under a socialist or communist banner.

In 1975, this led to the expropriation of the majority of industry. The Times declared: "Capitalism is dead in Portugal". This was not so because the initiatives by the working class from below and the opportunities they generated were squandered. This was because there was no coherent and sufficiently influential mass party and leadership capable of drawing all the threads together and establishing a democratic workers’ state. These examples show that the spontaneous movement of the working class is insufficient to guarantee victory in a brutal struggle against capitalism.

The spontaneous character of the German revolution was evident in November 1918. This mass eruption flew in the face of everything that the SPD leaders wanted. Even the creation before this of the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) – out of a split in the SPD in 1917 – did not arise from any conscious policy of its leaders, including Kautsky, Rudolf Hilferding and the revisionist Bernstein. It developed because of the revolt by the working class at the throttling of any objections to the SPD leadership’s policy on the war. This split was neither prepared nor desired by these ‘oppositionists’. Nevertheless, they took with them 120,000 members and a number of newspapers.

The general strike

Connected to Rosa Luxemburg’s emphasis on spontaneity was the issue of the general strike. Basing herself on the mass strikes of the 1905 Russian revolution, she nevertheless adopted a certain passive and fatalistic approach. To some extent, this later affected the leaders of the KPD after her death. Luxemburg correctly emphasised that a revolution could not be made artificially, outside of a maturing of the objective circumstances that allowed this possibility.

However, the role of what Marxists describe as the ‘subjective factor’ – a mass party, far-sighted leadership, etc – is crucial in transforming a revolutionary situation into a successful revolution. So is timing, as the opportunity for a successful social overturn can last for a short time. If the opportunity is lost, it may not recur for a long time, and the working class can suffer a defeat. Therefore, at a crucial time, a definite timeframe, a correct leadership can help the working class to take power. Such was the role of the Bolsheviks in the 1917 Russian revolution.

The opposite was the case in 1923 in Germany. The opportunity of following the example of the Bolsheviks was posed but lost because of the hesitation of the KPD leaders supported, among others, by Stalin. This was partly conditioned by historical experience which, until then, had featured partial general strike action in the working-class struggles prior to the first world war. In this period, there were instances where governments took fright at the general strike at its very outset and made concessions, without carrying the masses to open class conflict. This was the situation following the Belgian general strike of 1893, called by the Belgian Labour Party, with 300,000 workers participating, including left-wing Catholic groups and, on a much bigger scale, in the first Russian revolution. Under the pressure of the strike, the tsarist regime made constitutional ‘concessions’ in October 1905.

The situation following the first world war, a time of revolution and counter-revolution, was entirely different, with the general strike posing more sharply the question of power. The issue of the general strike is of exceptional importance for Marxists. In some instances, it is an inappropriate weapon. At the time of General Lavr Kornilov’s march against Petrograd in August 1917, for example, neither the Bolsheviks nor the soviets (workers’ councils) thought of declaring a general strike.

On the contrary, the railway workers continued to work so that the opponents of Kornilov could be transported to derail his forces. Workers in the factories continued to work, too, except those who had left to fight Kornilov. At the time of the October revolution there was no talk of a general strike. The Bolsheviks enjoyed mass support and, under those conditions, a general strike would have weakened themselves, not the capitalist enemy. On the railways, in the factories and offices, the workers assisted the uprising to overthrow capitalism and establish a democratic workers’ state.

In today’s era, a general strike usually is an either/or issue, where an alternative workers’ government is implicit in the situation. In the 1926 general strike in Britain, the issue of power was posed and dual power existed for nine days. In 1968 in France, the biggest general strike in history posed the question of power but the working class did not seize it.

The German revolution of 1918-23 also witnessed general strikes and partial attempts in this direction. The Kapp putsch in March 1920 – when the director of agriculture of Prussia, who represented the Junkers and highly-placed imperial civil servants, took power with the support of the generals – was met with one of the most complete general strikes in history. The government ‘could not get a single poster printed’ as the working class paralysed the government and state. This putsch lasted for a grand total of 100 hours!

Yet, even with this stunning display of working-class power, it did not lead to a socialist overturn, precisely because of the absence of a mass party and leadership capable of mobilising the masses and establishing an alternative democratic workers’ state. The erstwhile followers of Luxemburg in the newly-formed KPD made ultra-left mistakes in not initially supporting and strengthening the mass action against Kapp.

The role of a revolutionary party

The issue of leadership and the need for a party is central to an estimation of Rosa Luxemburg’s life and work. It would be entirely one-sided to accuse her, as has been attempted by some critics of her and Trotsky, of underestimating the need for a revolutionary party. Her whole life within the SPD was bent towards rescuing the revolutionary kernel within this organisation from reformism and centrism. Moreover, she had built a very rigid, independent organisation – a party – with her co-worker Leo Jogiches in Poland. However, her revulsion at the ossified character of the SPD and its centralism meant that she did, on occasion, bend the stick too far the other way. She was critical of Lenin’s attempt in Russia to create a democratic party, but one that was centralised.

On the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks she was a conciliator – as was Trotsky – seeking unity between them in Russia. But, after the Bolsheviks had won four fifths of the organised workers in Russia by 1912, a formal split with the Mensheviks took place. Lenin understood before others that the Mensheviks were not prepared for a struggle going beyond the framework of Russian landlordism and capitalism. His approach was vindicated in the Russian revolution, with the Mensheviks ending up on the other side of the barricades. Following the Russian revolution, Luxemburg came close to Bolshevism and became part of its international trend, as did Trotsky.

The main charge that can be made against Rosa Luxemburg is that she did not sufficiently organise a clearly delineated trend against the right wing of the SPD and the centrists around Kautsky. There were some criticisms at the time and later that Luxemburg and her Spartacist followers should have immediately split with the SPD leaders, certainly following their betrayal at the outset of the first world war. Indeed Lenin, as soon as he was convinced of the betrayal of social democracy, called for an immediate split, accompanying this with a call for a new, Third International. A political split was required, both from the right and ‘left’ SPD. Rosa did this, characterising the SPD as a "rotten corpse".

The organisational conclusion from this, however, was of a tactical rather than a principled character. Moreover, hindsight is wonderful when dealing with real historic problems. Rosa Luxemburg confronted a different objective situation to that facing the Bolsheviks in Russia. Spending most of their history in the underground, with a relatively smaller organisation of cadres, the Bolsheviks necessarily acquired a high degree of centralisation, without abandoning strong democratic procedures.

There was also the tumultuous history of the Marxist and workers’ movement in Russia, conditioned by the experience of the struggle against Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), the ideas of terrorism, the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the first world war, etc. These had prepared a steel-hardened layer of advanced workers by the time of the revolution. Rosa Luxemburg confronted an entirely different situation as a minority, and was somewhat isolated in a legal, mass party.

Although she was a naturalised German, she was considered an outsider, particularly when she came into conflict with the SPD leadership. Despite this, her courage shines through when one reads the speeches and criticisms that she made of the party leadership over years. She criticised the "clinging mists of parliamentary cretinism", what would be called electoralism today. She even lacerated August Bebel, an SPD founder and veteran party leader who increasingly "could only hear with his right ear". Accompanied by Clara Zetkin, she said to Bebel: "Yes, you can write our epitaph: ‘Here lie the last two men of German social democracy’."

The achievements of Rosa, particularly in the field of ideas, of Marxist theory, were remarkable in themselves, but even more so as a woman in what was still a heavily male-dominated society, which affected also the SPD. She castigated the SPD’s trailing after middle-class leaders in an excellent aphorism appropriate to those who support coalitionism today. She wrote that it was more necessary "to act on progressives and possibly even liberals, than to act with them".

But a vital element of Marxism in developing political influence through a firm organisation or party was not sufficiently developed by Rosa Luxemburg or her supporters. This does not have to take the form on all occasions of a separate party. But a well-organised nucleus is essential in preparing for the future. Luxemburg did not achieve this, which was to have serious consequences with the outbreak of the German revolution.

The real weakness of Luxemburg and Jogiches was not that they refused to split but that, in the preceding historical period, they were not organised as a clearly-defined trend in social democracy preparing for the revolutionary outbursts upon which Rosa Luxemburg’s work for more than ten years was based. She did not draw all the organisational conclusions in preparing a steeled cadre, a framework for a future mass organisation, in preparation for the convulsive events in Germany.

It was this aspect that Lenin criticised in his comments on Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius pamphlet (1915). Lenin conceded that this was a "splendid Marxist work", although he argued against confusing opposition to the first world war, which was imperialist, and legitimate wars of national liberation. But Lenin also comments that it "conjures up in our mind the picture of a lone man [he did not know Rosa was the author] who has no comrades in an illegal organisation accustomed to thinking out revolutionary slogans to their conclusion and systematically educating the masses in their spirit".

Lenin systematically trained and organised the best workers in Russia in implacable opposition to capitalism and its shadows in the labour movement. This necessarily involved clearly organising a grouping, a faction that was organised as well as being based on firm political principles, ready for future battles including the revolution.

Growing opposition to the war, however, widened the circle of support and contacts for Luxemburg and the Spartacist group. Trotsky sums up her dilemma: "The most that can be said is that in her historical-philosophical evaluation of the labour movement, the preparatory selection of the vanguard, in comparison with the mass actions that were to be expected, fell too short with Rosa; whereas Lenin – without consoling himself with the miracles of future actions – took the advanced workers and constantly and tirelessly welded them together into firm nuclei, illegally or legally, in the mass organisations or underground, by means of a sharply defined programme". After the revolution of November 1918, however, she did begin her "ardent labour" of assembling such a cadre.

A programme for workers’ democracy

Moreover she posed the ideological tasks very clearly: "The choice today is not between democracy and dictatorship. The question which history has placed on the agenda is: bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy, for the dictatorship of the proletariat is democracy in a socialist sense of the term. The dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean bombs, putsches, riots or ‘anarchy’ that the agents of capitalism claim". This answers those who seek to distort the idea of Karl Marx when he spoke about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. In today’s terms, as Luxemburg pointed out, this means workers’ democracy.

Marxists have to try to reach the best workers, and should avoid language which can give a false idea of what we intend for the future. Because of its connotations with Stalinism, therefore, we no longer use the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. The same idea is expressed in our call for a socialist, planned economy, organised on the basis of workers’ democracy.

The German revolution not only overthrew the Kaiser but posed the germ of this programme through the network of workers’ and soldiers’ councils on the lines of the Russian revolution. A period of dual power was initiated and the capitalists were compelled to give important concessions to the masses, such as the eight-hour day. But SPD leaders, like Gustav Noske and Philipp Scheidemann, conspired with the capitalists and reactionary scum in the Freikorps, predecessors of the fascists, to take revenge.

General Wilhelm Groener, who led the German army, admitted later: "The officer corps could only cooperate with a government which undertook the struggle against Bolshevism… Ebert [the SPD leader] had made his mind up on this… We made an alliance against Bolshevism… There existed no other party which had enough influence upon the masses to enable the re-establishment of a governmental power with the help of the army". Gradually, concessions to the workers were undermined and a vitriolic campaign against ‘Bolshevik terror’, chaos, the Jews, and particularly ‘bloody Rosa’, was unleashed. The Anti-Bolshevik League organised its own intelligence service and set up, in its founder’s words, an "active anti-communist, counter-espionage organisation".

In opposition to the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets’ (from the Russian revolution), the reaction led by Noske’s SPD mobilised behind the idea of ‘All power to the people’. This was their means of undermining the German ‘soviets’. A constituent assembly was posed as an alternative to Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s idea of a national council of soviets to initiate a workers’ and farmers’ government. Unfortunately, the muddled centrist lefts, whose USPD party grew enormously as the SPD leaders lost support, let slip the opportunity to create an all-Germany council movement.

The discontent of the masses was reflected in the January 1919 uprising. Such stages are reached in all revolutions when the working class sees its gains snatched back by the capitalists and comes out onto the streets: the Russian workers in the July days of 1917, the May days in Catalonia in 1937 during the Spanish revolution. The July days came four months after the February revolution. In Germany, the uprising took place a mere two months after the revolutionary overturn of November 1918. This is an indication of the speed of events.

Given the isolation of Berlin from the rest of the country, at that stage, a setback or defeat was inevitable. This became all the greater for the working class with the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. It was as if both Lenin and Trotsky had been assassinated in July 1917, removing the two leaders whose ideas and political guidance led to the success of the October revolution. Lenin – extremely modest on a personal level – was aware of his own vital political role and took steps, by going into hiding in Finland, to avoid falling into the hands of the counter-revolution.

Despite the urging of those like Paul Levi to leave Berlin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht remained in the city, with the terrible consequences that followed. There is no doubt that Luxemburg’s political experience would have been a powerful factor in avoiding some of the mistakes – particularly ultra-left ones – which were subsequently made in the German revolution. In the convulsive events of 1923, Rosa Luxemburg, with her keen instinct for the mass movement and ability to change with the circumstances, would probably not have made the mistake made by Heinrich Brandler and the KPD leadership when they let slip one of the most favourable opportunities in history to make a working-class revolution and change the course of world events.

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht are in the pantheon of Marxist greats. For her theoretical contribution alone, Luxemburg deserves to stand alongside Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Those who try and picture her as a critic of the Bolsheviks and the Russian revolution are entirely false. Initially, she criticised the policies of the Bolsheviks in 1918, in isolation from her prison cell, but was persuaded not to publish her comments by her closest supporters at the time.

Yet, still in her most erroneous work, she wrote of the Russian revolution and the Bolsheviks: "Everything that a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness, and consistency in a historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure… Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian revolution; it was also the salvation of the honour of international socialism". Only malicious enemies of the heroic traditions of the Bolshevik party used this material after her death in an attempt to divide Luxemburg from Lenin, Trotsky, the Bolsheviks and the Russian revolution.

Rosa Luxemburg made mistakes on the issue of Polish independence. She was wrong on the differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, even in July 1914 supporting the opportunists who stood for ‘unity’ between them. As Lenin pointed out, she was also wrong on the economic theory of accumulation. But, also in the words of Lenin, "In spite of her mistakes she was – and remains for us – an eagle". So should say the best workers and young people today who have occasion to study her works in preparation for the struggle for socialism.

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