Ninety years after the murder of Rosa Luxemburg: Lessons of the life of a revolutionary

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Rosa Luxemburg was an outstanding Marxist and revolutionary. Her assassination on this day 90 years ago severely damaged the German Communist movement. Here Patrick Larsen looks at her strong side and also her weaknesses in the light of the 1918 German Revolution and draws out lessons for today, in particular for the revolutionary movement in Venezuela.

“Order prevails in Berlin!” You foolish lackeys! Your “order” is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons,’ and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!” (Rosa Luxemburg, Order Prevails in Berlin, January 1919)

90 years ago, one of the greatest revolutionaries in Human History, Rosa Luxemburg, was brutally murdered. Her life was not just a heroic attempt at revolution but it is also a treasure house of lessons for today's struggles.

By the age of 22 she was already well known in the international workers' movement and represented her Polish party in the congress of the Socialist International of 1893. Picture from marxists.org.
Rosa Luxemburg was well known in the international workers' movement at a young age.

2009 will be a crucial year for a revolution that is still not determined   the Venezuelan revolution. In order to win this battle, the revolutionary cadres in Venezuela and the rest of the world must train themselves in theoretical ideas. And not just random ideas, but ideas derived from the living experience of the world working class movement. The 20th century was rich in such lessons and often revolutionaries have paid a very high price for them. That is why a study of the main lessons of the life of Rosa Luxemburg retains all its validity.

First years of militancy

Rosa Luxemburg was born in a small Polish village, Zamosc, on March 5, 1871. At the age of 16 she got involved in the socialist movement, joining the revolutionary party called Proletariat, which had been founded in 1882.

From 1889 onwards her involvement was known to the police and she had to flee Poland. Her comrades also thought she could play a more useful role from exile than in prison. She went to Zurich in Switzerland which was the centre of the Polish and Russian émigrés at that time. She began university studies of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Economics. But unlike other exiles, she took an active part in the local workers' movement, while continuing the work of a revolutionary Polish émigré.

By the age of 22 she was already well known in the international workers' movement and represented her Polish party in the congress of the Socialist International of 1893. In 1898 she went to Germany, which was clearly the most advanced working class centre at that time. In Germany she started working for the theoretical magazine of the SPD (German Social-Democratic Party), Die Neue Zeit.

Her work quickly came to include other aspects than writing. She took part in all parts of the work of a professional revolutionary cadre; Speaking in mass meetings, visiting women workers in their factories, editing daily papers of the Social-Democratic and trade union movement, etc.

The degeneration of the SPD

Rosa was clearly a talented organizer. But her qualities did not stop at that. In many ways, she was also a brilliant exponent of the ideas of Marxism. Several of her works such as The crisis of Social-democracy and The Mass Strike are classical Marxist works. However, her most important work was born out of a polemic against the growth of a reformist wing inside the SPD, headed by Bernstein.

For many years, the SPD defended Socialism as the only alternative to the Capitalist Crisis. In 1914, before the war, the party had 1,085,905 members and in the elections of 1912 its candidates received 4,250,000 votes.

But with this giant force there was also an extension of the organizational apparatus of the SPD. The party had 90 daily papers with 267 journalists working full time plus 3,000 workers in its print shops. The majority of its 110 MPs were also working as full time professionals, in the same way as the majority of its 2,886 members of regional legislative assemblies.

In and off itself this was not a problem, as long as the apparatus served revolutionary ends and was subjected to the control of the workers and the rank and file of the party. In fact, Lenin used the German SPD, with its professional revolutionaries, as a model in his famous book “What is to be done?”

But little by little the SPD leaders began to distance themselves from the class and the apparatus transformed itself into its opposite. This had a material base as the wages and life-style of the functionaries led these to distance themselves from the conditions of the working class itself. Not for nothing does Marxism teach that it is social being that determines consciousness.

Reformists and revolutionaries

One of the first expressions of this new phenomenon was the revisionist idea of Bernstein. The arguments pronounced by Bernstein are in many ways similar to the views defended by people such as Heinz Dietrich in Venezuela today.

Rosa Luxemburg was the first to give a coherent reply to these ideas. In her famous work ”Social reform or revolution” she unmasks the ideas of Bernstein. In an intelligent and effective way she exposed the false pretensions of Bernstein who wanted to “modernize” Marxism and reform the state institutions gradually:

“... the present State is not ‘society’ representing the ‘rising working class’. It is itself the representative of capitalist society. It is a class State (...) All in all, parliamentarism is not a directly socialist element impregnating gradually the whole capitalist society. It is, on the contrary, a specific form of the bourgeois class State, helping to ripen and develop the existing antagonisms of capitalism.” (Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 1900, Part One, Chapter IV)

In the same work she explains the internal contradictions inherent in Capitalism that make a gradual transformation towards Socialism impossible and concludes:

“Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

“Every legal constitution is the product of a revolution. In the history of classes, revolution is the act of political creation, while legislation is the political expression of the life of a society that has already come into being. Work for reform does not contain its own force, independent from revolution. During every historic period, work of reforms is carried on only in the direction given to it by the impetus of the last revolution, and continues as long as the impulsion of the last revolution continues to make itself felt. Or, to put it more concretely, in each historic period work for reforms is carried on only in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution. Here is the kernel of the problem.

“It is contrary to history to represent work for reforms as a long drawn-out revolution and revolution as a condensed series of reforms. A social transformation and a legislative reform do not differ according to their duration but according to their content. The secret of historic change through the utilisation of political power resides precisely in the transformation of simple quantitative modification into a new quality, or, to speak more concretely, in the passage of an historic period from one given form of society to another.

“That is why people who pronounce themselves in favour 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. Instead of a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society. If we follow the political conceptions of revisionism, we arrive at the same conclusion that is reached when we follow the economic theories of revisionism. Our programme becomes not the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism; not the suppression of the system of wage labour, but the diminution of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of the suppression of capitalism itself.” (Ibid, Part Two, Chapter VI)

The above sentences were written more than 100 years ago, but they seem to be the perfect answer to all the Heinz Dietrichs, Haimann El Troudis and Diosdado Cabellos who are advocating a reformist policy in today's Venezuela.

The war, the SPD and the Spartacist League

Die Rote Fahne was the organ of the Spartacist League and its pages often set an ultra-left tone.
Die Rote Fahne was the organ of the Spartacist League and its pages often set an ultra-left tone.

Rosa Luxemburg continued her involvement in the movement with more and more energy. In 1904 she was sentenced to nine months of prison for “insulting the Kaiser”, although she only served one month in jail. She was also present at various congresses of the Socialist International and she met both Lenin and Trotsky. In spite of certain disagreements, both of them held her in high esteem, a solidarity that was to continue unbroken for the rest of her life. Trotsky recalled this in his auto-biography:

“On the question of the so-called permanent revolution Rosa took the same stand as I did. In this connection Lenin and I once had a half-humorous conversation in the lobby. The delegates stood about us in a close ring. ‘It is all because she does not speak Russian too well’ he said, referring to Rosa. ‘But then she speaks excellent Marxian’, I retorted. The delegates laughed, and so did we.” (Leon Trotsky, My Life, p.209, Penguin Books version)

Between the publication of “Reform or revolution” in 1900 and the outbreak of the war in 1914, the contradictions between reformists and revolutionaries had been accumulating with every day that passed. But it is a well-known fact, that it is big events that will put every group, tendency or party to the test of fire. The greatest events in Human History are wars and revolutions.

In the decisive moment, all the SPD leaders brushed aside the Socialist slogans and voted in favour of the war credits in parliament. This was a betrayal without precedence. Even Lenin could not believe it and initially thought that the copy of Vorwärts which announced the decision, was a falsification made by the German general staff.

However, in spite of the betrayal of the reformist bureaucracy of the SPD – which initially paralysed the workers and sucked them into the war – this was to have a profound effect on the consciousness of the working class. The continuous disasters on the front, the problems and discontent among the soldiers and the misery in the working class neighbourhoods in the cities – all this was to force the proletariat to make an attempt to change society.

While all the main leaders of the SPD, including the former leftists around Karl Kautsky, capitulated to National Chauvinism, Rosa Luxemburg remained firm. She grouped a layer of comrades around her, notably Karl Liebknecht, the only MP who voted against the war-credits in parliament and a talented mass agitator. Other important figures in what was to be known as the Spartacist League were Leo Jogiches, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin.

To do justice to such a great revolutionary as Rosa Luxemburg, we must review her weak sides as well as her strong ones. It is quite clear that she made some mistakes, especially on the organizational front, which she later had to pay for. During various years she had had a polemic with Lenin on different subjects. Apart from differences on the National Question, the root-cause of crises under Capitalism, the Agrarian policies of the Bolsheviks, the role of Menshevism, etc., she also had a harsh discussion with Lenin on the question of Party building.

Surely, the SPD was the decisive organization of the German working class, even though its leaders were working actively in the service of the bourgeoisie. Rosa Luxemburg and her comrades remained inside that party, which was absolutely correct. They fought to win the maximum number of workers to genuine Marxism, while remaining in the party. Their great mistake was that they didn't do a serious, systematic work to organize a Marxist tendency. They didn't pay sufficient attention to the education of the Spartacist cadres, to raise their political and theoretical level and to group them around a regular publication.

We can also say that they understood way too late the processes taking place inside the SPD. They thought that the struggle would continue inside the party, even when a big section of the party was heading towards a split. This sector, led by important left reformist MPs, split away in 1916 and founded the USPD – the Independent Social-Democracy.

Here we see another valuable lesson for Venezuela and other countries. On the one hand it shows the absolute necessity of building an organized Marxist tendency to struggle against the internal right wing. As Paul Levi, another Spartacist who later was to lead the KPD said in 1920, “We are many who regret not having begun the formation of the nucleus of the Communist Party in 1903” (the same year as the nucleus of Bolshevism was founded in Russia). If a Marxist tendency is not built in the PSUV of Venezuela and in other mass parties throughout the world, it will be very difficult to intervene decisively in the struggles that can determine the fate of the revolution.

On the other hand it shows that discussions on perspectives are decisive and the conclusion that one draws is crucial at the moment of action. Wrong perspectives can result in serious mistakes in the practical intervention in the class struggle

Rosa Luxemburg and her comrades correctly participated in the USPD, but they had not foreseen its formation nor made preparations for it. While 170,000 stayed in the SPD, 120,000 (including 33 MPs) went over to the USPD. The USPD was a Centrist party; its leaders were leaning towards revolutionary slogans, but in practice they vacillated and inclined to make deals with the bureaucrats of the SPD.

1918: Year of revolution

International events were to have a profound effect on the consciousness of the German proletariat. The Russian October Revolution of 1917 saw the taking of power of the soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants, led by the Bolsheviks. This gave an enormous impetus to the enthusiasm of the German workers. On the other hand the continuous military defeats, the chaos and the decomposition of the German Army on the western front helped to lower confidence in the regime.

When the German general staff prepared a final battle, mobilizing the fleet to halt the advance of the enemy, this provoked a revolutionary movement. The sailors and dockers of Kiel, backed by the local units of the SPD and the USPD, took to the streets, fused their committee with the workers' committee and effectively seized power in the city. The movement extended itself throughout the country. Mutiny appeared in one military division after another. Soldiers' and Workers' committees were set up all over the country and power was in the balance.

But although Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the victory of the Socialist Revolution on November 11, the movement was rapidly derailed by the SPD leadership with the help of the Centrist leadership of the USPD who entered a joint government between the two parties. Rosa Luxemburg who had been in prison since July 1916 was released and threw herself into the movement with renewed energy and devotion.

Without going into too many details, it is necessary to point out that Germany's November revolution of 1918 had a lot of similarities with the Russian February Revolution. The raw masses who entered political life for their first time, were not completely clear on the necessity of a break with the bourgeoisie. There were certain democratic illusions and the SPD leaders, who promised an improvement in living standards but without a “violent revolution”, still enjoyed much confidence. The working class had power in its hands but was not conscious of that fact and handed it over to the leaders of the SPD who worked under the orders of the German bourgeoisie.

In itself, this was not a problem. In fact, it is a normal stage in the development of the consciousness of the working class. After the February Revolution, Lenin thought that it was only a question of explaining patiently the Bolshevik programme and building the revolutionary forces in order to prepare the conquest of the masses and through them the conquest of power.

Ultra-leftism gets the upper hand

But that line, which won the majority in the Bolshevik party in 1917, did not have the same support among the Spartacists. While the more experienced cadres like Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches wanted to postpone the formation of the Communist Party in order to win a larger group among the activists of the USPD, the inexperienced majority of the Spartacists pushed with great impatience for an immediate split.

Many of these ultra-left elements where raw youth who had not absorbed the lessons of the Russian Revolution. Impatient with the apparently slow pace of events they looked for shortcuts. They substituted the conquest of the masses with the immediate conquest of power without taking seriously into consideration the then consciousness of the masses.

For the Marxists, it is always fundamental to point out that there are different layers in the working class, the youth and the peasants who learn at different rhythms and draw the necessary conclusions at different speeds. The most advanced sections among the activists of the workers' movement will be aware of the betrayal of the reformists much faster than the workers in the rank and file. In general, workers are quite loyal to the organizations that lead them in their first movements that awaken them to political life. Great events are necessary for the workers to turn their backs on the old leaders and search for an alternative.

In the Spartacist ranks impatience grew by the day. Contrary to the wishes of Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches, the League decided to form the KPD(S) – the German CP (Spartacist) in December 1918. However, the founding congress was held without a serious preparation and effort to win maximum support. For example, the network of revolutionary shop stewards in Berlin had put forward a number of correct demands for integration into the new party, but found themselves rejected from the beginning. Thus a decisive part of the revolutionary vanguard of the workers’ movement remained outside the new party.

The founding congress of the KPD(S) had the support of the Bolsheviks, who sent Karl Radek as their representative. However, the congress did not approve the same methods as the Bolsheviks had applied in Russia. In fact, the sectarian ultra-left elements won over Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht on the most decisive points; rejection of participation in the forthcoming elections to the Constituent Assembly and rejection of work inside the SPD-dominated trade unions.

These questions of revolutionary tactics need discussing by today's revolutionaries. If we were to reject work inside the traditional trade unions and set up “pure” trade unions, we would be condemned to isolation. To reject work in this or that trade union confederation, just because it has a reactionary leadership would be a huge mistake. In the same sense, it would be the height of stupidity to reject joining mass parties, such as the PSUV in Venezuela.

The question of parliament is also important. Marxists, of course, know that fundamental questions are never resolved in parliament but in the streets and the factories. However, we think that the working class must use every means at its disposal to promote the revolutionary message. As long as the revolutionaries do not have the force to bring down an institution, that is to say as long as we do not have the majority of the class won to our programme, we should use every platform to agitate for our ideas and win the maximum number of followers.

Unfortunately, all this was not taken into account by the majority of delegates in the KPD(S) founding congress.

January 1919: The revolutionaries fall into the trap

According to Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg did not have a pessimistic attitude, in spite of having been defeated on the main points at the KPD(S) founding congress.

“Rosa simply declared that a new-born child always squalled at first... She expressed her firm conviction that the new party would eventually find the right path despite all its errors, because it embraced the best core of the German proletariat.” (Quoted in Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917-23, page 227).

At first, she seemed to be right. In spite of the confused results of the founding congress, not everything was lost yet for the German Communists. The month of December saw an intensification of the class struggle. The USPD was expelled from the government by Ebert, the SPD chancellor. When ten military divisions where called into Berlin in order to secure the rule of reaction, the soldiers rejected, influenced by revolutionary propaganda. The democratic illusions of November were slowly but surely disappearing. The German bourgeoisie knew it. They used the time to form the Freikorps, armed paramilitary groups which quickly reached 80,000 members en Berlin.

In January the decisive provocation of the right wing took place. In Berlin, Eichhorn – a well-known left-wing member of the USPD – was sacked from his job as leader of the police force in the German capital. The USPD and the KPD(S) responded with a call for a demonstration on January 5. Hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets. But the revolutionaries did not have any plan of struggle and did not give a clear lead. They spent the whole day in endless discussions while most workers returned to their homes.

Once 5th of January had past, the Communists fell into the trap; Without consulting the KPD(S) leadership, Karl Liebknecht and Pieck (another leading Communist) signed a declaration together with the leaders of the revolutionary committee, saying that the immediate aim was to “bring down the government”. However, this was done without paying much attention to the winning over of the majority in the committees of soldiers and workers, nor with any serious military preparations. Many buildings in Berlin where seized and the insurrection found an echo among the vanguard. But this was not enough.

Both Karl Radek and other Spartacists such as Leo Jogiches and Paul Levi tried to convince Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht to make a temporary retreat. Although Rosa Luxemburg was very much against starting the insurrection, once it was in motion she did not understand the necessity of making the retreat. She also insisted that the defence of the occupation of the Vorwörts-building (the HQ of the German SPD press) was a matter of principle.

Here we see the direct consequence of the lack of systematic work of cadre-training on the part of the Spartacists. In the decisive moments, Rosa Luxemburg and others around her were pushed aside by the left-wing workers in the vanguard who were impatient for action but who lacked a sober estimation of the correlation of forces. As Radek said in a letter, in which he correctly compared the 'Spartacist insurrection' of January 1919 to Russia's 'July Days' of 1917:

The only force able to call a halt and to prevent disaster is you, the Communist Party. You have enough perspicacity to know that this struggle is hopeless. Your members Levi and Duncker have told me that you know this... Nothing can stop him who is weaker from retreating before a stronger force. In July 1917, we were infinitely stronger than you are today, and we held back the masses with all our might, and, when we did not succeed, with a tremendous effort we then led a retreat from a hopeless struggle.“ (Quoted in Pierre Broué, The German Revolution p. 251)

According to Radek, a tactical retreat was necessary. A temporary one, equal to the one made by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and with the same objective: The KPD(S) should begin a campaign to win over the majority of the Workers' and Soldiers' committees. Unfortunately his valuable advice found no echo. The Spartacist leaders did not make the necessary retreat in time.

It is quite significant that Rosa Luxemburg in the last days before her assassination began to lay more emphasis on the role that a revolutionary party must play.

On January 6, she wrote:

“Germany has until now been the classical land of organisation. Here we are fanatical about organisation and make a parade out of it. Everything must be sacrificed to 'the organisation', good sense, our aims and the capacity of the movement to act. What do we see today? At decisive moments of the Revolution, this vaunted talent for organisation fails in the most pitiable way.” (Die Rote Fahne, January 6, 1919)

On January 11, she wrote:

The absence of leadership, the non-existence of a centre to organise the Berlin working class, cannot continue. If the cause of the Revolution is to advance, if the victory of the proletariat, of socialism, is to be anything but a dream, the revolutionary workers must set up leading organisations able to guide and to utilise the combative energy of the masses.” (Die Rote Fahne, January 11, 1919) 

Unfortunately this was too late. The ruling class took full advantage of the premature Spartacist insurrection. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested on January 15 and subsequently murdered. As Pierre Broué puts it in his brilliant book on the German Revolution, “The young Communist Party was simultaneously deprived of its best political leader and its most prestigious spokesperson”. Just a couple of months passed before Leo Jogiches was murdered, again allegedly “while trying to escape”.

An eagle

The death of Rosa Luxemburg was a heavy blow to the German proletariat which had lost one of its best leaders. Picture from Bundesarchiv.
The death of Rosa Luxemburg was a heavy blow to the German proletariat, which lost one of its best leaders. Picture from Bundesarchiv.

The death of these leaders – most important of them, Rosa Luxemburg – was a heavy blow and had a huge impact on the prospects for the German Revolution. Without these leaders, the German CP, with its mass of young and inexperienced members, wasted several opportunities to seize power – most importantly in 1923.

Lenin was very clear in his final judgment of Rosa Luxemburg. He said she was “an eagle” of the working class . In response to her critics and those who tried to take advantage of the past disagreements between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin responded with the following:

“We shall reply to this by quoting two lines from a good old Russian fable: ‘Eagles may at times fly lower than hens, but hens can never rise to the height of eagles.’ Rosa Luxemburg was mistaken on the question of the independence of Poland; she was mistaken in 1903 in her appraisal of Menshevism; she was mistaken on the theory of the accumulation of capital; she was mistaken in July 1914, when, together with Plekhanov, Vandervelde, Kautsky and others, she advocated unity between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; she was mistaken in what she wrote in prison in 1918 (she corrected most of these mistakes at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 after she was released). But in spite of her mistakes she was—and remains for us—an eagle. And not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works (the publication of which the German Communists are inordinately delaying, which can only be partly excused by the tremendous losses they are suffering in their severe struggle) will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world. ‘Since August 4, 1914, German Social-Democracy has been a stinking corpse’—this statement will make Rosa Luxemburg’s name famous in the history of the international working class movement. ” (V. I. Lenin, Notes of a Publicist, February 1922)


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History & Theory » Historical Analysis » WWI and the German Revolution