Editorial: The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg

Following the 2016 election of Donald Trump to commander-in-chief of us imperialism, some 50,000 young people have flooded into the Democratic Socialists of America (dsa), which had been a small holding action on the fringes of the American left, passing through the post-1960s decades of reaction in pursuit of the “left wing of the possible” as formulated by its one-time leading light Michael Harrington (1928–1989). We doubt that many of dsa’s new recruits knew or cared much about that “ancient history,” and Harrington’s decades-long anti-Communist (and anti-communist) career.

A look around the advanced capitalist sector today (the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea) inspires scant enthusiasm for those (such as Insurgent Notes) defining themselves as left communists. Thirty years have elapsed since the collapse of Soviet “communism.” Chinese strongman Xi Jinpeng gives policy speeches in which the word “socialism” is not even mentioned. For contemporary left parties in Europe, from the British Labour Party to the (near-defunct) French Socialist and Communist Parties to the Spanish psoe (currently in power) or the German spd, “socialism” means variations on a Keynesian welfare state, and hardly the abolition of commodity production it meant for Marx.

True, tens of thousands of young people have recently joined the British Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, who recently emerged from the “back benches” after decades of obscurity, somewhat in parallel to Vermont “Independent” politician Bernie Sanders in the United States. In France, the “Yellow Vests” have unsettled the “president of the rich” Emmanuel Macron for two months. But elsewhere, the far right is on the march: Germany’s afd (Allianz für Deutshland), and in Andalucia, where a new far-right group erupted in the bastion of the Spanish Socialist Party, not to mention Poland and Hungary, where the far right in power is framing an “authoritarian democracy,” or Italy’s Northern League, currently a proto-fascist party in Italy’s coalition government with the larger “Five Star” movement.

In such a reality, Rosa Luxemburg’s mass strike conception, which she counterposed to Lenin’s “night watchman” outlook as expressed in What Is To Be Done?, seems quite remote. In her view, “The creativity of the masses in motion is more important that the decisions of the best central committee.”

We remember Rosa Luxemburg first erupting into the reality of the Second International (1889–1914), when at the 1893 congress she raised her small frame onto a chair for her startling speaking debut there, age 23. We remember her leading polemical role in 1898–1900, helping to (temporarily) vanquish the “revisionists,” for whom, following Edward Bernstein, “the struggle was everything, the goal nothing.” We remember her taking herself off from Berlin to Poland during the mass strike wave of 1905–1907, where her embattled faction the sdkpil (Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania) showed its stuff against the nationalist pps (Polish Socialist Party) which was quickly evolving toward the nationalist authoritarianism of Josef Pilsudski, later the strongman of the newly independent Poland after World War I.

Rosa Luxemburg fought the concept of “national self-determination” for Poland (and elsewhere) throughout her career. (We should recall that until 1918 the territory of would-be Poland was divided between Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary; it had disappeared from the map of Europe in 1772.) Luxemburg argued that national liberation was “utopian under capitalism, reactionary under socialism.”

Luxemburg spent most of World War I in a German prison, but composed her Junius Pamphlet against the war and against any socialist support for it. She was freed by the November (1918) revolution, and with barely two months to live, set about founding the German Communist Party (kpd-Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands).

When the Spartakus uprising of January 1919 brought tens of thousands of German workers into the streets, Luxemburg, though skeptical about any immediate revolutionary possibilities, went with them out of solidarity, eventually leading to her arrest and murder, along with her comrade-in-arms Karl Liebknecht. The proto-fascist Freikorps was brought into Berlin by the Social Democratic head of state, the right-wing Phillip Scheidemann, himself a close associate of Friedrich Ebert, who famously stated “I hate revolution like the plague.”

Lenin’s oration on the occasion of Luxemburg’s murder (January 15, 1919), whatever his true feelings about the disappearance of his one rival of stature in the newly-founded Third International, was eloquent: “An eagle can sometimes fly lower than a chicken, but a chicken can never fly as high as an eagle. Rosa Luxemburg was wrong on the national question and on the question of organization. But she will always remain for us an eagle.”

As John Garvey will argue in his article on the German Revolution in this issue of Insurgent Notes, Luxemburg was the paramount figure who would have confronted him, despite the mantle of the Russian Revolution, as an equal in determining the future of the Communist International. The sorry history that unfolded after her death is proof in the negative (if proof there need be) of her importance.

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