Rosa Luxemburg in the 21st century

imagesby Don Franks

Today, ninety five years ago, the great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was murdered by German police. More clearly than most Marxist writers, Rosa Luxemberg set out a clear programme of mass anti-capitalist struggle. She showed that the road of reformism is not a longer, safer journey to socialism, but a road in the opposite direction.

Her writing stands in sharp contrast to the confused meanderings of modern protest politics. The Mass Strike, for instance, is a work that anyone interested in anti-capitalist revolution will profit from studying.

Meanwhile, below is an argument for workers’ internationalism I presented to Peace Action Wellington in 2007; here, some of Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary teaching seemed to be a natural conclusion.


Longtime New Zealand folksinger Phil Garland, has a composition which goes in part:

I’m proud to be a Kiwi, standing strong and tall,

The spirit of our Nation unites us one and all.

Let’s join hands together and sing in harmony,

Our land – New Zealand, means all the world to me.

Cliches like that do seem to resonate with some people. Take for example, the following widely posted email:

“Did you know that New Zealand is pretty much the only place in the world that you can not actually be a New Zealander? Whenever you fill out a form or survey in New Zealand you can tick the box to say you are Maori, Tongan, Samoan, Australian, European (or NZ born of European Decent), Asian, etc but there is no box provided to say ‘Yes, I am a New Zealander and I am proud to be one’. …Why is it that we can’t be New Zealanders in our own country? … fight for our right to be recognised as who we are in this proud and strong country of ours. And remember… at census time… ‘Other – New Zealander!’ (and Proud of it).”

Here are brief comments from four politicians:

Our ancestors succeeded in creating a peaceful happy and wealthy slice of relative paradise right here in New Zealand. We were once the sweetest little country in the world. All of the world once hailed and envied our outstanding harmonious national achievement.

This was true for both White and Maori New Zealanders. New Zealand was easily the wealthiest, most comfortable and settled bi-racial culture, on the face of the entire planet!

But this was only when this country had a national pride.

(Sid Wilson, NZ National Front, Wellington, Speech 2004)

Don Brash  (May 2006) concluded his 2006 “Proud to be a Kiwi” address  to the Auckland Rotary Club this way: “(NZ is ) a country which sacrificed proportionately more of its young people in the defence of freedom than any other Allied country during the First World War. I’m a proud New Zealander.”

It’s not only the National Party who rewrite history to promote blind loyalty in the service of  imperialist war. For example, Helen Clark’s 2004 speech to the memorial service for the Unknown Warrior:

In being chosen to represent more than 30,000 others who died in the service of our country, the Unknown Warrior has enormous symbolism for New Zealand. All we know of him is that he died on the Western Front, and that he was one of us. We are the future generations for whom he lost his life. In a very real sense he is one of the foundations of today’s society.

Clark then went on to praise “… ordinary New Zealanders who did not have the right to decide the course of events, but who did their duty according to the imperatives of their time. In honouring their sacrifice, we are sustaining a deep and lasting respect for our war dead.

This is not just an occasion of sorrow, but also an opportunity to pay tribute to our New Zealand servicemen and women who lost their lives serving our nation. We acknowledge that they gave their lives in our country’s service, and that all of us today, in some sense, owe them the lives we now lead.

. . . New Zealand servicemen and women continue to go abroad to places of conflict, putting their lives in jeopardy. They serve our country with courage and dedication as they work to bring peace to troubled places. They are highly regarded worldwide.

Helen Clark is clever. Most liberals would shake their heads at the values of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade poem,  but Clark effectively revamped those values for modern day use. When “our country” calls, you  “(do) not have the right to decide the course of events, but are expected to do your duty  according to the imperatives of you time.”

And on it goes, across the political spectrum:

Our Party supports our police going to help the Solomon Islands people to help them move to a situation where the rule of law applies. We support what our police force has done so far. I understand that about 10 New Zealand police are there now, and this will expand to perhaps 30 or 40 under the arrangements. We are very grateful to those police who will go on this operation for what they do, and for the sacrifices they will make. Our Party wishes them well in their work over there.

We are developing a peacekeeping speciality with both our military and our police. I think the nation is proud of what we have achieved in peacekeeping.

That crawling to the state forces is from Green MP Keith Locke, in Parliament’s urgent Debate on Deployment of Police and Military Forces to Solomon Islands, 1st July 2003.

Granted, Keith’s speech was hedged around with ifs and buts about hoping “our police” didn’t stay in the Solomons too long. But that would seem to me a backhanded admission that they ought not to have gone in the first place. The essential point remains; don’t expect any real opposition to capitalist state forces from the Green party.

From the above quotes its possible to get two false impressions.

One, that New Zealand is a united entity whose entire  population all share identical interests and, two, that national pride, or patriotism, is something natural, to be unquestioned.

Emma Goldman said : “Patriotism. . . is a superstition artificially created and maintained through a network of lies and falsehoods”

When where and why was this “artificial superstition” created?

National states are relatively new phenomena. For example, it’s only a few generations ago that the states of Italy and Germany didn’t exist.

Nationalism developed as an early capitalist ideology of the bourgeois revolutions against feudalism. As a weapon against feudalism, the nation state was, initially, historically progressive. Today, the development of modern globalised production and distribution has made the nation state an outmoded anachronism, blocking human progress.

In her 1911 work Peace Utopias, the great Polish revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg had a clear view of the reality of nation states and the anti-war movement.

She saw the task of the anti-war movement as being “to endeavour to make it clear to the people that militarism is closely linked up with colonial politics, with tariff politics, and with international politics, and that therefore the present Nations, if they really seriously and honestly wish to call a halt on competitive armaments, would have to begin by disarming in the commercial political field, give up colonial predatory campaigns and the international politics of spheres of influence in all parts of the world. In a word, in their foreign as well as in their domestic politics they would have to do the exact contrary of everything which the nature of the present politics of a capitalist class state demands.”

Rosa Luxemburg argued against the futility of trying “to convince the bourgeois State that it can quite well limit armaments and bring about peace and that it can do this from its own standpoint, from that of a capitalist class State.”

She realised that “Militarism in both its forms – as war and as armed peace – is a legitimate child, a logical result of capitalism, which can only be overcome with the destruction of capitalism, and that hence whoever honestly desires world peace and liberation from the tremendous burden of armaments must also desire Socialism.”

Today former revolutionary socialist Marian Hobbs argues that critics of NZ military so-called peace-keeping forces are “crazy”.*

We learn from Rosa Luxemburg that its pointless trying to persuade capitalist politicians to do the exact contrary of everything in the nature of their politics, and that our job is to  build a mass movement against them.

In NZ today there is a low level of anti-capitalist struggle and even of militant union struggle. There is some fine militant union struggle being waged today, but that is currently a minority trend in the union movement. The collaborationist CTU leadership divide most of their time between cheer-leading for the government** and a dreary succession of collaborationist gimmicks, the latest of which is a series of seminars seeing how bosses can increase productivity. The present low level of anti-capitalist struggle, however, does not invalidate anti-capitalist arguments on the origins of war.

So, what do we do next?

In the course of Troops Out Now campaigning, we need to provide a strong ideological alternative to the artificially-created superstitions of national pride. The facts are on our side and we should make full use of them. We should always be sure to call things by their right names. When ‘Peace-keepers’ kill our fellow global citizens they are killing our relatives.

We need to set a positive internationalist agenda wherever we can. For example, we need to consistently argue and demonstrate for no restrictions on immigration and for open borders.

I agree with Rosa Luxemburg that an ultimately successful anti-war movement must become an anti-capitalist revolutionary movement. That is not to insist that all anti-war activists must be anti-capitalists. It is to insist on unrestricted space in the anti-war movement for revolutionary agitation and propaganda.

* At the time of Don’s original presentation, Hobbs was Labour MP for Wellington Central and a member of the government.                                                                                                                                             ** In 2007, of course, Labour was in power.


  1. I read Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution in 1999, exactly a century after she had written it. I was struck by the fact that it could of been written the month before it was so relevant and alive. And what she had to say about nationalism and the folly of national sovereignty is as true today as when she originally wrote it.

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