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Rosa Luxemburg at 100

Rosa Luxemburg is considered by many on the capitalist left as a revolutionary socialist and a Marxist theorist. This year marks the centenary of her tragic death in 1919 and so it would be a useful exercise to critically assess if these claims are correct or not. Did she have views on many subjects close to those of the Socialist Party of Great Britain? What were these views? And do they have any relevance for today’s socialists?

Throughout her political life she wrote a considerable amount of literature about the reformism within the SDP, advocated by people like E. Bernstein (“PROBLEMS OF SOCIALISM”, NEUE ZEIT, 1897-98), about the First World War which she opposed, about the political tactics she favoured such as the mass strike and about the supposed limits of capitalism as it became a fully integrated global system of class exploitation at the start of the 20th century. These writings are contained in such works as REFORM OR REVOLUTION (1898), THE MASS STRIKE (1906), THE NATIONAL QUESTION (1909), THE ACCUMULATION OF CAPITAL (1912), THE JUNIUS PAMPHLET (1915) and THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION (1922).

Going against the grain of the Bolshevik coup d’état in 1917, Luxemburg also contributed to a critique of Lenin’s anti-Marxism. She levelled two criticisms and a warning against Lenin. First she refuted Lenin’s policy of creating a centralised party structure whose leadership imposed tactics and strategy on the rest of the organisation and by extension to the working class outside it. She rightly denounced this centralism as “Blanquism”: the argument that socialist revolution should be carried out by a relatively small group of highly organised and secretive conspirators. She wrote:

The centralisation of social democracy, based on the two principles [of] the blind subjection of all party organs and their activity, down to the minutest detail to a central authority, which thinks, acts and decides for everyone and secondly, the strict separation of [the] organized core of the party from the surrounding milieu, as Lenin would have it, seems to us no more or less than a mechanical transference of the Blanquist principles of the organisation of conspiratorial groups to the social democratic movement of the working class” (Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy)
https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/ch01.htm

Secondly, she dismissed Lenin “opportunism” in urging socialists to support “the rights of nations to self-determination”, a position which she had previously set out in relation to Poland where she had dismissed Marx’s own position on the question of nationalism as “obsolete and mistaken”. THE NATIONAL QUESTION by Rosa Luxemburg (edited by Horace B. Davis, 1976)

In her polemic against Lenin she wrote:

So long as capitalist States endure, particularly so long as imperialist world-politics determines and gives form to the inner and outer life of the States, the national right of self-determination has not the least thing in common with their practice either in war or in peace. ... In the present-day imperialistic milieu there can be no national wars of defence, and any socialist policy which fails to take account of this definite historical level and which in the midst of the world vortex lets itself be governed merely by the isolated viewpoints of a single country is doomed in advance." (Junius pamphlet, 1915, quoted in Luxemburg versus Lenin, Paul Mattick)
https://libcom.org/library/luxemburg-versus-lenin-mattick.

Luxemburg, rightly saw both these political doctrines as a repudiation of core Marxian principles. These principles are that the establishment of socialism by the working class had to be by the effort of workers themselves and not by leaders no matter how benign. And that the political support for national self-determination of oppressed national groups was “opportunism” replacing the Marxian class struggle and socialist revolution with a national struggle and establishment of autonomous nation states.

The events of the twentieth century have proved her analysis of the national question correct. Not only was “rights” when applied to national self-determination an abstract and metaphysical demand but all national struggles have ever successfully achieved is to secure capitalist rule for its ruling class and has bought socialism no nearer as has recently been shown in Ken Burns documentary VIETNAM 1945 to 1975 where one authoritarian regime was replaced by another at the cost of 2 million lives and the continuation of class exploitation. Unlike the capitalist left, the Socialist Party of Great Britain did not support the Vietcong and North Vietnam.

And her warning about future events in Russia was prescient. She remarked:

Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins (the postponement of the Soviet Congress from three-month periods to six-month periods!) Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc." (THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION page 75)
https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/russian-revolution/ch06.htm

However, it was the consequences of the First World War which tragically and prematurely ended Luxembourg’s life. Her opposition to the war found her arrested and imprisoned on several occasions but her opposition to the war also cut her off from former comrades who supported the carnage by voting for war credits.

Luxemburg also wrote the anti-war JUNIUS PAMPHLET (1915). In the concluding section of the pamphlet she optimistically wrote:

The world war today is demonstrably not only murder on a grand scale; it is also suicide of the working classes of Europe. The soldiers of socialism, the proletarians of England, France, Germany, Russia, and Belgium have for months been killing one another at the behest of capital. They are driving the cold steel of murder into each other’s hearts. Locked in the embrace of death, they tumble into a common grave.

The madness will cease and the bloody demons of hell will vanish only when workers in Germany and France, England and Russia finally awake from their stupor, extend to each other a brotherly hand, and drown out the bestial chorus of imperialist war-mongers and the shrill cry of capitalist hyenas with labour’s old and mighty battle cry: Proletarians of all lands, unite!
https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/junius/ch08.htm

Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht co-founded the anti-war Spartacus League (Spartakusbund) in 1916 after her second period in imprisonment for opposing the war. The Spartacus League would eventually become the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

When peace finally arrived in November 1918, the government, led by Prince Max von Baden, resigned and Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated as the country slipped into varying degrees of revolution and social unrest. Discontent and hunger were rife. The Imperial Navy mutinied in Kiel. In Berlin, workers’ councils were formed. In Munich a separate “socialist republic” was declared for the entire region of Bavaria. The rebellions were to go the same way as the Paris Commune.

During the November Revolution Luxemburg co-founded the newspaper DIE ROTE HAHE ("THE RED FLAG"), for the Spartacist movement.

Almost at the same time the KPD was formed from a unification of Spartacist League and the communists there was an uprising in Berlin against Ebert’s majority Social Democratic government, with encouragement from Soviet Russia. Luxemburg considered the uprising of January 1919 a mistake but supported it nonetheless. Her doubts were not misplaced.

The former Berlin police chief, a radical sympathiser of the rebellion, supplied weapons to the rebels who captured the police station and erected barricades in the streets. Calls for a General Strike brought thousands of people onto the streets but the Revolutionary Committee had no practical plan to secure the city, nor initiate a political programme and could not agree what to do when confronted by superior military force that was disciplined and well armed. Some of the committee wanted to continue with the armed rising while others wanted to compromise with Ebert’s government. Attempts to persuade army regiments to join the revolt also failed.

Friedrich Ebert’s government crushed the revolt by sending in the Friekorps (government-sponsored paramilitary groups consisting mostly of World War I veterans). Equipped with artillery, machine guns and grenades, the Freikorps retook the police headquarters, the war ministry and other buildings the revolutionaries had captured, and shot hundreds of the demonstrators, including many who had surrendered. The workers’ and soldiers’ councils collapsed, partly by being no match for well trained soldiers but, more importantly, not having widespread support from the population in Berlin who sided with the government. Ebert went on to establish a new constitution for what was to be known as the Weimar Republic, which survived until Hitler took power in 1933.

The failure of the uprising was to prove a personal disaster for Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Freikorps troops captured and summarily executed both of them on January 15th 1919, and Luxemburg's body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal in Berlin.

The architect, Mies van der Rohe, designed the memorial monument to Luxemburg and Liebknecht in 1926 in a stark brickwork composition of bullet ridden bricks taken from buildings damaged and destroyed during the uprising. The dominant but vulgar hammer and sickle motif fixed to the memorial symbolised not only the dictatorship of the Party over the workers and peasants but also represented the millions killed in the Soviet Union under the Bolshevik dictatorship. In its brutality the monument was a fitting symbol to Luxemburg’s dictum “socialism or barbarism” which she had used in the Junius pamphlet to describe the crossroads at which capitalism had arrived in 1915. The monument also symbolises for socialists the futility of the political mass strike made up of non-socialist workers and her misjudgement in taking part in violent direct action against the government and the armed forces of the state.

Socialists are in full agreement with Rosa Luxemburg’s rejection of Lenin’s method of centralised organisation and acknowledge her principled opposition to capitalism’s wars; however socialists are opposed to her theory of mass strikes, still in vogue with Trotskyists, today. The use of mass strikes to establish socialism is at odds with the socialist position of a socialist majority using the revolutionary use of Parliament in order to secure the machinery of government, including the armed forces, before socialism can be established. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, in its correspondence with supporters of violent direct action in the letter pages of the SOCIALIST STANDARD in the 1920s and 1930s forcibly made the political point about workers taking on the armed forces of the state in mass strikes and street battles quite clear: that is, complete opposition. This opposition was based upon socialist principles and recognition of the facts of history.

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