Rosa Luxemburg: An icon to reclaim, if ever there was one

For Uwe-Jürgen Ness: May you always feel at home in the world. 

There is a pathology on the US left today, and it has to do with history. The New Left of the 1960s/70s and what remains of it today are characterized by a pretty remarkable phenomenon: You can hardly have a discussion about anti-capitalist struggle and revolution – not just with liberals and conservatives but even amongst ourselves – that doesn’t feature some obligatory, long-winded caveat disavowing our relationship to what’s called “historical communism”.

The safest way to talk about that relationship is to portray it as a clean break with everything that came before, as if “historical communism” were just a term for the inevitable end of revolution in totalitarian tyranny; as if the diverse range of movements, parties, and states that have called themselves communist, socialist, or revolutionary are just one monolithic thing; as if their successes and failures took place in a vacuum rather than in reaction to a violent status quo that always threatens to return with a vengeance.

But the biggest taboo isn’t against movements, parties, or states – it’s against individual people. Single out a historical figure and claim them as an icon of the left and you’re already halfway to the sort of authoritarian leader worship we associate with the phrase “cult of personality”.

Never mind that the liberals whose approval we so desperately seek have elevated the “democratic” personality cult into an art form, with disastrous results. No, it’s radicals who’ve proven ourselves incapable of venerating an icon without making dogmatic excuses and whitewashing their crimes. After all, the real problem with the left isn’t what our convictions are – we are free, we’re reminded, to think and say what we want – it’s that we stubbornly persist in acting like we have any real convictions at all.

I think I’ve made it clear that I think this is a destructive tendency. But are there really revolutionary figures worth reclaiming, people whose prescient analyses and principled opposition are as crucial today as they ever were? I claim that there are, and one of these is Rosa Luxemburg, the revolutionary Polish activist and thinker who is, at this moment, arguably the intellectual godmother of the radical left in Germany.

In the span of three decades, Luxemburg became one of the most influential leaders of the European labor and socialist movements – second, perhaps, only to Lenin. She founded, along with Leo Jogiches, the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland, the Marxist political party that fought for Poland’s liberation from the German and Russian Empires of which it was a part.

She then moved to Germany, at that time the home of Europe’s strongest workers’ movement, and quickly earned the respect of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), including its most notable leaders, like August Bebel and Karl Kautsky.

In those early years, the SPD appeared unified: As Bebel said in his toast on New Year’s Eve, 1899, just as the 19th century had been a century of hope, the 20th would be “a century of fulfillment”. Instead, for Germany as for Europe, it would be a century of betrayal. The prospect of World War I split the SPD into left and right factions, revealing the party leadership’s socialist internationalism to be of a fair-weather sort.

They argued for accommodating nationalism and militarism in much the same way that Democrats today lecture progressives and the left about the necessity of Obama’s wars of aggression and support for apartheid: If we take a principled stand for international solidarity and human rights now, we’ll become unelectable in a climate where imperialism is a prerequisite for political “seriousness”.

Luxemburg continued to speak out against the war even after parliamentary Social Democrats voted unanimously to approve war credits in 1914, and for that, she was imprisoned by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Having committed no punishable infraction, she was instead put in “protective custody” (in relatively comfortable quarters) with the explicit purpose of shutting her up.

In her defense at her trial in Frankfurt, she cited numerous resolutions by the First and Second Internationals condemning war between the elites of nation-states as an enemy of working-class solidarity (As Walter Benjamin would later write, “War and war alone can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.”).

The prosecutor denounced “Red Rosa” as a traitor, accusing her of inciting soldiers to mutiny through her agitation. Luxemburg refused to back down:

Wars can be waged only when and only so long as the mass of working people either participates wholeheartedly, because it considers the war just and necessary, or at least tolerates it. If, on the other hand, the vast majority of working people come to the realization – and to awaken them to this realization, this consciousness, is precisely the task we Social Democrats put to ourselves – …that wars are a phenomenon that is barbaric, deeply immoral, reactionary, and hostile to the interests of the people, then wars will have become impossible.

Luxemburg was imprisoned for the duration of WWI. On November 9, 1918, after two weeks of increasing munity by sailors over the lost war effort, Wilhelm II abdicates the throne. Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert is named Chancellor and declares Germany a parliamentary democracy, kicking off the period commonly referred to as the Weimar Republic. Luxemburg is freed from protective custody, and Karl Liebknecht (along with Luxemburg, the most prominent dissident on the SPD’s left wing) declares Germany a socialist republic.

The so-called November Revolution made the left-right split official: Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and other radicals splintered off from the now-ruling SPD to form the Spartacus League – later to become the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). The SPD leadership, quite logically, viewed the Spartacists as a threat to the established order.

The Spartacists, on the other hand, saw the November Revolution as not yet complete, just as the February Revolution of 1917 (which ended the Tsar’s reign and made Russia a bourgeois democracy) had to be completed by the Bolshevik October Revolution later that year. If the SPD would not make good on its onetime promise to be at the forefront of revolutionary struggle, that task now fell to the KPD.

On New Year’s Eve, 1918, Luxemburg presented a declaration of principles for the KPD, in which she argued that a successful communist revolution in Germany would need the support of the majority of the population (It was clear that it did not). Her declaration was voted down twice; the dominant view, shared by Liebknecht, rejected participation in the upcoming elections in favor of mass strikes and demonstrations until the state could no longer function and the communists could take power.

Liebknecht, without consulting Luxemburg, ordered the start of what’s known as the Spartacist Uprising. On January 5, 1919, the rebellion began in earnest. Luxemburg pleaded with Liebknecht to call it off, knowing full well that the uprising was doomed and would lead only to unnecessary bloodshed.

On the 9th, the right-wing paramilitary Freikorps (which would form the core of Hitler’s supporters), acting in cooperation with the Social Democratic government, moved in to Berlin; on the 15th, on Ebert’s orders, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were kidnapped by the Freikorps and murdered. Her body was dumped in the river. Thousands of German leftists were killed in the streets during the uprising, as well as in the executions that followed.

Luxemburg and Liebknecht assumed the civil liberties afforded to citizens of a liberal democracy would protect them too. She thought she could stay in Weimar Germany after the uprising: imprisoned, but alive, and sooner or later to be released – as Hitler would be.

She was wrong; and so she was killed extrajudicially by a proto-fascist militia, in a particularly bloody chapter of the communist revolution that never came to Germany. Instead, the Social Democrats’ alliance with fascism against communism proved as catastrophic for liberal democracy as it had been for the left.

But despite this bit of practical naïveté, Luxemburg had proven herself as rigorous and realistic in her analysis as she was principled in her struggle. She was not a pacifist, and – as her opponents’ willingness to use the most brutal repression makes clear – nor should she have been.

But she is set apart from Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and most other leaders of “historical communism” by an integrity, humility, and empathy that can only be called revolutionary. “A world must be overturned,” she wrote shortly before her death, “but every tear that flows, though it might be wiped away, is an accusation; and the person who rushes to perform a great deed, and treads on a worm out of sheer carelessness, commits a crime.”

She is survived by thousands of her personal letters, collected and published by the German Democratic Republic’s Institute of Marxism-Leninism. These letters – far from simply regurgitating her speeches and political writing – reveal a rich private life no less passionate than her agitation and organizing.

In a letter to Liebknecht’s wife Sonja (written during her “protective custody” in Breslau, her ninth prison), she describes a scene she witnessed while taking a walk on the prison grounds. A cart rolled past, pulled by oxen; a soldier walked alongside them, whipping them mercilessly. When she asks him if he has no compassion for animals, he laughs it off. One of the oxen begins to bleed:

As the cart was unloaded, the animals stood perfectly still, exhausted; and one, the one that bled, stared ahead with an expression on his black face and in his gentle eyes like a tear-stained child.

It was exactly the expression of a child who has been punished severely and doesn’t know why, what for, doesn’t know how to make the torture and the brute force stop.

… I stood before him, and the animal looked at me, tears ran down my face – they were his tears, and one cannot recoil at the pain of one’s most beloved brother more forcefully than I, in my helplessness, recoiled at this silent agony.

… Oh, my ox, my poor, beloved brother, we both stand here so helpless and worn-down, and are only one in pain, in helplessness, in longing….

Luxemburg confronted every bit of real suffering she came across, whether human or non-human, with the so-called utopian ideal of its alleviation. This is part of what the often ambiguous (and often misunderstood) term “dialectics” means to me: Change emerges from contradictions and antagonisms, but it takes time. You cannot make the possible actual through sheer force of will, just as Liebknecht couldn’t order the revolution into being. What you can do is speak, act, and write such that you, in your own way, help create the conditions of possibility for the world you want to live in.

In his “Schema of Mass Culture”, Theodor Adorno writes that,

The neon signs which hang over our cities and outshine the natural light of the night with their own are comets presaging the natural disaster of society, its frozen death. Yet they do not come from the sky. They are controlled from earth. It depends upon human beings themselves whether they will extinguish these lights and awake from a nightmare which only threatens to become actual as long as men believe in it.

Today, in struggles for liberation and justice around the world, it’s essential to reassert the possibility of a radically different way to organize social and economic life. The threat of what Adorno so poignantly calls “the natural disaster of society, its frozen death” is more real and imminent than ever.

We have, in Rosa Luxemburg, an icon whose deep humanism and democratic vision of socialism have made it to the 21st century untainted by the failure of “Really Existing Socialism” – an icon worth reclaiming, if ever there was one.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 marks the 95th anniversary of Luxemburg’s death. We honor her and ourselves when we recognize the truly radical lesson of her life: That utopia casts a shadow into the material world, and this shadow is called possibility. That’s dialectics.

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