Rosa Luxemburg’s political legacy

Rosaby Simon Olley

Rosa Luxemburg, one of the great leaders in the history of the socialist movement,  was murdered on the night of 15 January 1919.  Captured by a division of Germany’s reactionary Freikorps on orders from the Social Democratic Party leader Friedrich Ebert, her skull was smashed by a rifle-butt and her body dumped into Berlin’s Landwehr canal.

The spot is today marked by a simple memorial.  Amidst the trees in the Tiergarten, the name Rosa Luxemburg stands out in metal-lettering. The understated nature of the memorial, and the silence and seclusion of its spot on the canal, give little hint of the tumultuous circumstances surrounding her death, which took place in the first months of a revolution by workers, sailors and soldiers which had brought World War I to an end in late 1918.  Luxemburg died as a battle raged for the heart of the workers’ movement between the reformist Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the revolutionaries gathered around Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in the Spartacus League (later, the Communist Party of Germany).

Nor does the memorial give any sense of the significance of Luxemburg’s life as a revolutionary socialist, the inspiration that her example provides or the immense influence she has had on those who have come after her.  A soldier’s rifle-butt was enough to smash her skull, but her legacy could not be destroyed so easily.

Reform or revolution

Luxemburg was born in Poland on 5 March 1871 and cut her teeth as an activist in the Polish revolutionary underground.  But as an immensely talented political leader, she was drawn to the centre of the workers’ movement in Germany, where from the late 1890s onwards she took her place as the driving force of the radical wing of German socialism.

In her pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution, published in 1899, she took up the fight against those in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) who rejected revolution and argued instead for a focus on the gradual reform of capitalism through parliamentary and trade union work.

The leading figure within the revisionist current, as it came to be known, was Eduard Bernstein.  In his book The Preconditions of Socialism and the Task of Social Democracy he argued that as the capitalist system developed, the tendency to crisis identified by Marx was being overcome, raising the prospect of a permanent and peaceful advance towards universal prosperity.

In response to Bernstein, Luxemburg argued that, far from the contradictions in capitalism and its tendency to crisis being overcome, as the system developed these contradictions would intensify.  The period of growth and prosperity experienced in Germany in the last decades of the 19th century was only, as it were, the calm before the storm.  It wouldn’t be long, Luxemburg argued, before the contradictions inherent to the system broke out in the open again.  Only this time, with the greater concentration of industry and the heightened competition between nations for markets and resources, the crisis would be deeper than ever before.

A little over a decade later, with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the correctness of Luxemburg’s account was clearly demonstrated.  Further,  the behaviour of the Social Democratic parliamentary leaders, who junked all their long-established anti-militarist traditions to vote in favour of funding for the war effort, showed the truth of her insight that rather than changing the system, the reformists would end up being changed by it.

As Luxemburg put it:  “people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of an in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal.”  In the face of a renewed crisis of capitalism, of war and brutality on an unprecedented scale, the reformists’ professions of faith in the long-term achievement of a socialist society gave way to a more or less straightforward defence of the existing order.

The tragedy of Luxemburg’s life is that by the time she realised the necessity of breaking with the SPD and of building a clearly revolutionary organisation, it was too late.  The weakness of the revolutionary left during the war meant that in the decisive battles of the revolutionary post-war years from 1918 to 1923 the revolutionaries were always running to catch up, giving the Social Democratic leaders and other reactionary forces in Germany the space they needed to re-establish “order”.  The true cost of these defeats is shown in the subsequent path of German history, as it rushed headlong towards the catastrophes of the 1930s and 40s.

The relevance of these debates for today is clear.  The neo-liberal creed that, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was trumpeted by its disciples as holding out the hope of peace and prosperity for all, has crashed on the rocks of the deepest global economic crisis since the Depression.  In the lean, mean capitalist system of today, the word “reform” is increasingly just code for austerity, for attacks on working class living standards, for cuts to health, education and social welfare.  The “progress” offered by capitalism is more and more just the progress of a tiny minority of the world’s population in their mission to harness the complete stock of human and natural resources for their own personal enrichment.

The need for a revolutionary alternative to the swamp of mainstream politics is more urgent now than ever.

The mass strike

In thinking about what this alternative might look like, we can draw on another of Luxemburg’s contributions – the emphasis she placed on Marx’s idea of revolution as “the self-emancipation of working class”.

The key work in this regard is her pamphlet The Mass Strike, written in the aftermath of the first Russian revolution of 1905.  Events in Russia were greeted with a wave of enthusiasm in the Western European socialist movement.  In particular, the central role played by mass strikes of workers in these events gave confidence to the radicals within the German SPD and the trade unions.

For the reformist SPD and trade union leaders though, the new enthusiasm among workers for the mass strike was a cause for deep concern.  It went against all the rules of the game – blurring the boundary between political demands, the domain of the party, and economic demands, which were the responsibility of the unions, and risking the struggle breaking-out beyond the carefully mapped paths of reform.

For many trade union leaders, parliamentarians and party officials, the development of union organisation and the advance of the SPD’s parliamentary activities had become ends in themselves.  The attitude of many trade union leaders is summed up nicely in the words of Theodor Bömelburg, who said: “To develop our organisations further, we need peace in the labor movement.”

Strikes were a drain on union funds, and risked provoking the wrath of the capitalist state, which could impose punitive measures that would hinder the smooth functioning of union machines.  To the extent that mass strikes may be useful or necessary, they were a tactic to be employed carefully and precisely by the leadership, at the appropriate time and in the right conditions.

In contrast to this, Luxemburg considered that the mass, revolutionary strikes that occurred in Russia in 1905 provided a timely reminder of where the true wellspring of the socialist movement was to be found.  In her mind, the strength of the movement lay not in the increasingly gigantic bureaucratic machinery of the unions or in the carefully thought out parliamentary manoeuvrings  of the Party, but in the self-activity of workers themselves in struggle.

For Luxemburg, the direct involvement of workers in struggle was the key to the advance of the workers’ movement, both in its economic and political dimensions.  The relationship between the economic struggles of workers for better wages and conditions, and the struggle to advance the political goals of the workers’ movement was highly reciprocal:  “After every soaring wave of political action, there remains a fertile sediment from which sprout a thousand economic struggles.  And the reverse also applies.  The workers’ constant economic struggle against capital sustains them at every pause in the political battle.”

It isn’t hard to find contemporary illustrations for this point.  We need only look, for example, to events in Egypt, during the overthrow of Mubarak and since, to see the role that strikes by workers can play in an overtly political movement, and, conversely, the potential for political victories to open the space for an extension of the economic struggle.  To maintain a hard and fast divide between the economic and political spheres, as was the case with the reformists of Luxemburg’s time, is to shut-off the mutually reinforcing dynamic that gives the movement as a whole its strength.

Further, in line with Marx’s insistence that the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a socialist society can only succeed on the basis of the self-activity of workers, Luxemburg drew out the way in which mass strikes support the political and organisational advancement of the working-class.  The spontaneous emergence of the Russian soviets (workers’ councils) during the events of 1905, provides the clearest possible illustration of this, showing that even the most astute and engaged party or trade union committee could be no substitute for the experience of the mass of workers in struggle.

The task of a genuine revolutionary organisation is not, therefore, to set-out a pre-ordained path or schema that workers are called to obediently follow towards the achievement of socialism.  It is, rather, to be immersed in the everyday struggles of workers, and to develop the political experience, with and alongside workers, that alone provides the foundation for leadership in a period of revolution.

Socialism or barbarism

Luxemburg spent the majority of the years from the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 to the revolution of November 1918 behind bars, imprisoned for being one of the very few people in Germany with the courage to speak out against the slaughter unfolding in the trenches.   In The Junius Pamphlet, written from her cell in early 1915, she painted a vivid picture of the stark choice she saw as facing humanity in those years:

“Either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war.”

Talk of the “collapse of civilization” may seem overly dramatic.  But we need only think of events in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, not to mention the dawn of the nuclear-era at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to get a sense of what she had in mind.

Luxemburg saw clearly that imperialism was part of the core logic of capitalism and that its inevitable consequence was war.  The subsequent history of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century provide ample evidence for this.

The reality of capitalism today, just as much as in Luxemburg’s time, is that beneath the veneer of diplomatic niceties and temporary alliances lies the reality of simmering hostility and military rivalry between the ruling-cliques of different nations.

The ruling-classes of the world preach the virtues of capitalism and its potential to bring “peace and prosperity” for all.  Meanwhile, they invest trillions of dollars in maintaining and developing a stock of weaponry with the potential to destroy all life on earth many times over.  Luxemburg’s words, written amidst the carnage of World War I, provide a timely reminder of the consequences for humanity if and when the imperialist rivalries of today break out into the open.

The silence which surrounds the Rosa Luxemburg memorial on the Landwehr canal in Berlin need not, then, be regarded as the silence of a forgotten past.  It is, perhaps, just as much the tense and brooding silence of a future waiting to be born.

The struggles sweeping Europe and other parts of the world today continue to gather pace.  At the same time, our rulers are resorting to increasingly violent means of repression.  In this context, we would do well to recall the message of Luxemburg’s last known article before her death.  With the Social Democrats in the ascendancy and the Freikorps busy imposing their blood-soaked “order” on the workers of Germany, she wrote:

“‘Order reigns in Warsaw!’ ‘Order reigns in Paris!’ ‘Order reigns in Berlin!’ Every half-century that is what the bulletins from the guardians of ‘order’ proclaim from one centre of the world-historic struggle to the next.  And the jubilant ‘victors’ fail to notice that any ‘order’ that needs to be regularly maintained through bloody slaughter heads inexorably toward its historic destiny; its own demise… ‘Order reigns in Berlin!’  You stupid lackeys.  Your ‘order’ is built on sand.  Tomorrow the revolution will rise up again and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: ‘I was, I am, I shall be!’”

The choice we face today is no less stark than that which Luxemburg saw confronting humanity at the height of World War I.  The continuation of a system of capitalism built on violence, injustice and poverty for the vast majority of people.  Or the struggle for socialism – a society and economy democratically and collectively controlled by workers, in which the vast capacities and resources of humanity are no longer sacrificed on the altar of the market, but can be turned to providing the things we need to live a decent life.

The above article first appeared in the June 14, 2012 issue of the Australian Marxist publication Socialist Alternative.

Further reading: Rosa Luxemburg in the 21st century