INTRODUCTION TO ROSA LUXEMBURG
Helen C. Scott and Paul Le Blanc
Perhaps more than any other Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg has been remembered in various and diverse works of art: in lithographs by Conrad Felixmüller and Käthe Kollwitz; poems by Bertolt Brecht and Oskar Kahnel; fiction by Alfred Döblin; film by Margaretha von Trotta; painting by Diego Rivera and R. B. Kitaj; and more recently in a novel by Jonathan Rabb and music by the British 'post-punk' bands Ludus and The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg. Possibly this is because although her life was short – she was only 48 when she was killed – she had a profound impact on world history. In fact, thousands gather in Berlin on the anniversary of her death, bringing red carnations to honour her memory.
Nor is Luxemburg simply a focal-point for the European avant-garde. In 2003 Dr Zweledinga Pallo Jordan, South Africa's then Minister of Arts and Culture and prominent in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), commemorated the anniversary of the assassination of South African Communist Chris Hani with a speech highlighting Luxemburg's famous remarks on socialist democracy: 'Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of "justice" but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when "freedom" becomes a special privilege.' In the following year, a remarkable gathering of radical students and township activists well to the left of the ANC placed Red Rosa at the centre of a 2004 Conference on War and Imperialism. The People's Republic of China has hosted more than one international conference on Rosa Luxemburg in recent years. In an Indian political context in which the left is overwhelmingly dominated by Communist parties largely influenced by traditions associated with Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, one of the most important left-wing scholars, Dr Sobhanlal Datta Gupta of the University of Calcutta, has presented a remarkable volume interweaving Luxemburg's writings with those of V. I. Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, and Georg Lukács.
Rosa Luxemburg was the product of an age of change and instability, when socialism was central to a mass labour movement, and worldwide socialist revolution was a concrete possibility. Her premature death also marks a turning point in history. Close analysis of this moment, as in Pierre Broué's monumental history of the German Revolution, for example, brings to mind an alternative reality, one in which Luxemburg was not murdered; socialist revolution succeeded in Germany, rescued Soviet Russia and spread across the globe; and the twentieth century was spared Stalinism, fascism, and World War II.
But while such speculation may be tempting, it is more fruitful to look instead at the tangible legacy left to us by Rosa Luxemburg, which is both inspiring and instructive to those seeking progressive social change. Her clear sighted contributions to Marxism offer much that is relevant today: elaboration of the destructive and anarchic process of capitalist accumulation, inherently prone to militarism, imperialism, and crises; recognition of the impossibility of gradually reforming away these negatives, and therefore of the necessity of a revolutionary strategy; and an understanding of the world's working class as the vibrant force capable both of winning reforms and of forging a humane and sane alternative.
Early Life in Poland
Rosa Luxemburg grew up in Russian occupied Poland at a time of rapid economic and social transformation. She was born in 1871 (shortly before the insurgency of the French workers that led to the Paris Commune) in the Lublin border district, where many of the privations of serfdom were intact, even while young capitalist development brought new hardships. The Luxemburg family was relatively well off – her father managed a timber business – but nonetheless experienced periods of financial hardship, and of course faced the particular discrimination against Jews in Poland. Her parents were literate and cultured, and the children were encouraged to read broadly and achieve a rounded education. The family moved to Warsaw, which offered more opportunities even for those who suffered the triple 'yoke of oppression' in the words of Rosa's main biographer, Paul Frölich: '[Rosa Luxemburg] belonged to the Russian people enchained by tsarism, the Polish people suppressed by foreign rule, and to the down trodden Jewish minority.' She was also female in a patriarchal society, and, due to a mistreated hip disease in childhood, suffered a physical disability. These personal experiences, and the suffering she saw around her – in addition to pervasive and brutal class inequality, at the age of ten she witnessed a violent pogrom – must surely have contributed to her lifelong abhorrence of oppression. While still at school she wrote a poem containing the line 'I want to burden the conscience of the affluent with all the suffering and all the hidden, bitter tears.' At the end of the nineteenth century the confluence of democratic revolution and industrial capitalist transformation was galvanising the global socialist movement. Luxemburg was part of this development in Poland: as a teenager she joined the underground party, Proletariat, that was engaged in organising trade unions and strikes, and running illegal factory circles around illicit Marxist literature. When that organisation was crushed by a series of mass arrests and executions, Luxemburg, like many of the other surviving members, went into exile.
The next period of her life was spent in Zürich, Switzerland, where she acquired a formal education at the university – she was awarded her doctorate in Public Law and Political Science in 1898 – and also became immersed in the exile Marxist networks that thrived there. Even at this young age she showed the political independence and courage that were to become her trademarks; she was never afraid to challenge the established authorities whether in the University or the Marxist movement. She soon started to make an impact in the Second Socialist International, the federation of parties from different nations that succeeded Marx's International Working Men's Association. She presented at her first Congress of the International in 1893; contributed articles to the German based journal Die Neue Zeit and many other publications; and helped found what would become the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), along with fellow expatriate Leo Jogiches, who was a life-long comrade and for many years also her romantic partner.
German Social Democracy
It was a logical step to go from Zürich to Berlin, home to the largest party in the International, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), generally considered to represent the future for socialist organisation. Despite her outsider status – she was after all young, female, Polish, Jewish, physically small and walked with a limp – Luxemburg rapidly became not only a leading member of this formidable party, but one of its most outspoken internal critics.
Socialism had an undeniably mass following in Germany, which was at the forefront of the ascending global socialist movement. Pierre Broué describes the German working class as it was at the turn of the twentieth century:
Relatively well-educated, familiar with technology and machines, with a sense of collective work and responsibility, with a taste for organization, the German proletarians were modern workers, able to defend their immediate interests, to devote themselves to militant activity, and to become conscious of a society which treated them merely as tools, and also aware that their solidarity made them into a force which could change their lives ...
The powerful and breathtakingly class-conscious labour movement had within it working class radicals such as those described by Mary Nolan in her detailed case study of Düsseldorf, Social Democracy and Society. She writes:
For the workers in Düsseldorf, who lacked an autonomous and shared culture, social homogeneity, and a dissenting political tradition, social democracy provided a vocabulary for analyzing society and a vision toward which to struggle. It offered a vehicle for coping with urban industrial society and protesting against the inequities of capitalism and political authoritarianism. In the process of filling these functions, social democracy created a political and economic movement and a new kind of worker's culture, which brought together thousands of Düsselfdorf workers previously divided by skill and occupation, by religion and geographic origin, by experiences and expectations.
Since socialism had become legal in 1890, the SPD was in the process of transforming from a small, underground, revolutionary organisation, to a mass party containing not only, to use Luxemburg's words, 'the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat', but a formidable apparatus of political, social, and cultural institutions. The German sociologist Max Weber famously described the SPD in 1907 as a 'state within a state'. In 1912, the SPD was the largest party in Germany's parliament, the Reichstag, with 110 deputies elected by four and a quarter million voters (34.7 percent of the electorate). SPD membership soon exceeded a million, and its ninety daily newspapers had 1.4 million subscribers throughout Germany. In addition to the party branches, there were associated trade unions containing millions of members, an extensive network of SPD-affiliated consumer co-operatives, a multifaceted youth movement, a large women's movement, an array of social services, not to mention innumerable sports and cultural organisations. SPD branches and activities are estimated as having been worth 21.5 million marks, and (in addition to innumerable dedicated socialist 'volunteers') approximately 3,500 paid employees worked full-time in the apparatus of the German Social Democracy's various components.
The SPD provided organisational and educational resources for workers, such as the Volkshaus (People's House) opened in 1909 by the Düsseldorf SPD, and described by one of its members, Peter Berten, as 'a home where workers are master and not dependent on the goodwill of speculating parasites ... a home in which they can raise themselves above the misery of daily life, if only for a few hours'.
Rosa Luxemburg was always closely connected to this larger working class movement. Her first task on joining the SPD was to tour the hardscrabble Polish-speaking communities of Upper Silesia – something few of the established party bureaucrats wanted to take on. Her political speeches won leadership and respect among the miners and steel workers of Königshütte, Katscher, Gleiwitz and elsewhere: 'Those who listened brought her flowers and did not want to let her go.' Her status as a mass leader was to be repeatedly confirmed: by the huge crowds that met her on release from her major prison sentences; by the audiences who turned out to hear her speak on the Russian revolution of 1905 or for her anti-war tour in 1914; and by the mass silent demonstration that accompanied her funeral.
Revolutionary Critique of Reformism
The prodigious growth of both the SPD and the socialist trade unions was accompanied by the emergence and consolidation of a conservative bloc within their leaderships. As Carl Schorske elaborates in his thorough history of the organisation, the SPD over two decades developed a massive bureaucracy of paid functionaries oriented on parliament and increasingly hostile to radical change. This is corroborated by Peter Gay: 'The party gave the appearance of being strictly devoted to revolutionary ends (it even rewrote its programme in 1891 to underline its intransigence) while, in reality, it was becoming parliamentary and reformist. This split between thought and action ... helps to explain much subsequent history.' As this apparatus became more and more part of the establishment, it departed from the central principles of Marxism: accepting the terms of German nationalism; abandoning principled opposition to colonialism and militarism; attempting to rein in labour struggle, and limit it to 'bread and butter' rather than 'political' questions.
Luxemburg saw this process perhaps more clearly than anyone else in the Second International. She captured the underlying dynamics in a speech at the party conference in Stuttgart as early as 1898, responding to the reformist anti-Marxist leader of the Bavarian SPD, Georg von Vollmar:
Vollmar has reproached me bitterly of wanting to instruct the old veterans, as only a young recruit in the movement. That is not the case ... I know that I must first collect my epaulettes in the movement; but I want to do this in the left wing, where one wants to fight with the enemy and not in the right wing, where one wants to compromise with the enemy.
By 1907 her critique was even sharper: 'The masses, and still more the great mass of comrades, are inwardly tired of parliamentarism, I feel. They would joyously welcome a fresh breeze in party tactics; however, the old experts (Autoritäten), and even more the upper stratum of opportunist editors, deputies, and trade union leaders, are a dead weight.'
The theoretical expression of these developments came to be known as reformism, or revisionism, and one of its primary spokespeople was Eduard Bernstein, a German socialist who went into exile in Britain at the time of the anti-socialist laws and settled there. He was profoundly influenced by Britain's moderate trade union leadership and its militantly class-collaborationist and gradualist reform-socialists, the Fabians (whose leading personalities included Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Graham Wallas, and H. G. Wells). Bernstein wrote a series of articles under the title 'Problems of Socialism' for Neue Zeit, and then published a book, Evolutionary Socialism. He argued that Marx's analysis of capitalism's inherent tendency to crisis had been superseded, and that socialism could be achieved gradually and peaceably through parliamentary legislation and patient work in the trade unions and worker co-operatives. One of Luxemburg's most important and enduring contributions to socialist theory was her response to revisionism, most famously in her 1899 polemic, Reform or Revolution.
The work is a study in the historical materialist method, which starts with an analysis of the whole capitalist system, understanding each individual event or fact in its relation to the concrete social totality even when it is obscured from view. Materialists reject the perspective of the individual capitalist in favour of that of the oppressed majority, the only class that can end the horrors of capitalism and bring into being a new society. Luxemburg argues:
Bernstein's theory does not seize these manifestations of contemporary economic life as they appear in their organic relationship with the whole of capitalist development, with the complete economic mechanism of capitalism. His theory pulls these details out of their living economic context. It treats them as the disjecta membra (separate parts) of a lifeless machine.
Far from updating Marxism as he claimed, Bernstein had removed its scientific basis, and therefore took a step backward, to the pre-Marxist conception of socialism as an abstract utopia.
Luxemburg rejects the opposition between reform and revolution and declares that socialists cannot choose one or the other:
The daily means of engaging and working for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the social democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal – the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor. Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the social democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.
She argues that reformists do not offer an alternative means to the same end – worker emancipation – but throw out this aim altogether. She writes:
[t]hose who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place of and 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.
The aim of revolutionary struggle is the working class majority taking power; because it argues that this is no longer necessary, reformism is not only utopian, but is antithetical to working class liberation.