July 1, 2019

Rosa Luxemburg: Utopian or Explorer?

Walter Baier

Find here the second text of transform! europe’s article series on Rosa Luxemburg on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of her murder

Talk by Walter Baier, 12 March 2019, on the occasion of the centenary of Rosa Luxemburg’s death – organised by transform.at! and the Austrian Central Association of Pensioners (Zentralverband der Pensionistinnen und Pensionisten Österreichs  – ZVPÖ).

Source: graphics based on an Abril Morillo Drawing, published in: Rosa Roja. Cuaderno Didáctico Para Conocer A Rosa Luxemburgo. Ed. ATRAPASUEÑOS 2019;

Yes, Rosa Luxemburg is one of the greats. She is a model, and memory of her is very much shaped by her assasination, which made her into a martyr of the socialist movement.

In this, Rosa Luxemburg shares the fate of Antonio Gramsci and Ernesto Che Guevara, whose lives and work were also ended violently and untimely thus becoming interpretable in diverse ways.

The most famous example in Luxemburg’s case is the – posthumously – published The Russian Revolution. It begins: ‘The Russian Revolution is the mightiest event of the World War.’ However, what follows is a brilliant critique of the policies carried out by the Bolsheviks, climaxing in the famous line:

‘Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.’

No less important is the argument she adds to this: ‘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.’ Put in another way, this point is the dialectical antithesis to the beginning. However, the antithesis too is in turn overcome in a further antithesis and generalised into a synthesis. Specifically, in the last sentences of this work Rosa Luxemburg returns to the beginning by once again acknowledging the historic achievement of the Bolsheviks but now enriched by her critical observations:

‘In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism […]. In Russia, the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism”.’

The October Revolution is thus not presented to us here as an epoch-making, Messianic event but in the beginning rather dryly as a fact, indeed the most important fact, of the First World War. The Bolsheviks are subsequently criticised not from the point of view of liberals shocked by the Revolution but from that of the Revolution itself, which makes it possible in the end to define its place in history: namely, that it had posed the problem of socialism without having resolved it. In this sense, that is, of having posed the problem that could not be solved in Russia, the future belongs to socialism, she wrote. And only in this sense!

What a far cry this is from the childish eulogies of the “Great Socialist October Revolution”, which were customary under Stalin and still practised as late as the 1980s in Communist parties – and still today in places. With the position she took, Rosa Luxemburg stood on the only place worthy of a true revolutionary, that is, between all stools.

The liberals and Social Democrats could be just as little pleased with her unequivocal commitment to the Revolution as the fossilised party communists of the 1920s could be with her criticism of Bolshevik politics. Thus in 1928, in both the German Communist Party and the Communist International, the concept ‘Luxemburgism’ became an invective by which those accused of it were disparaged and ostracised; this culminated in the dissolution of the Communist Party of Poland in 1937 and the physical liquidation of its cadre in the Soviet Union.

But back to Rosa Luxemburg herself.

When she settled in Germany in 1898, she was already a famous Marxist. She became well-known in German Social Democracy through her polemic with Eduard Bernstein, that is, the so called ‘revisionism dispute’. ‘What is commonly called the final goal of socialism is nothing for me; the movement is everything’, Bernstein said. The goal is everything and the movement nothing if the latter is not subordinated to the former, Luxemburg answered. From the communist point of view, good and bad seem to be unambiguously distinct. But nothing in history and politics is unambiguous. Bernstein, for example, was among those who in 1914 along with Luxemburg opposed the SPD parliamentary group’s support of the war. Still more importantly, Bernstein voiced that with which the SPD had long been concerned and which was not resolvable with the intellectual tools provided by the Communist Manifesto:

In the second half of the nineteenth century the progress of industry and the class struggle had made it possible for the working class to slowly advance socially and culturally. Many workers continued to vegetate in misery, but other now had, in contrast to what Marx had described a half century before, more to lose ‘than their chains’.

And in contrast to the view of the Communist Manifesto, the goal of a socialist revolution appeared not to be in the offing. After the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 socialists could nowhere believe in a successful armed uprising in one of the developed countries.

On the other hand, after the rescinding in 1890 of the Anti-Socialist Laws the SPD was able to build up an electorate counting in the millions. Victory through gradual growth appeared possible. Those who like Bernstein called for a revision of previous conceptions could thus, on the one side, argue that the SPD had in practice long since ceased to be a revolutionary party. They could, what is more, cite Friedrich Engels who had written in 1891 that the old society could peacefully grow into the new society where the representative body of the people had concentrated all power within it and where one could constitutionally do what one wanted as long as one had the support of the majority of the people.

Despite this, the revision demanded by Bernstein became an internal party scandal. However, Bernstein and his orthodox critics in the party leadership, above all Karl Kautsky, were united in practice – no one thought in terms of an armed revolution. But while Bernstein advocated stating this and adjusting the theory to the reformist practice, the orthodox preferred continuing to mask reformist practice with verbal adherence to the goal of socialism.

This is where Luxemburg intervened. In contrast to Bernstein she interpreted the rise of monopoly capital, imperialism, and colonialism not as a weakening but as a sharpening of class antagonisms. And, in contrast to Kautsky, revolutionary phrasemongering was repugnant to her. For her, achieving positions of power in legislatures and the growth of the organisation were not goals in themselves but only valuable in so far as they were components of a political strategy subordinated to the general goal of the movement. Important to her – and still important today – was the conviction that without intervention in questions of everyday life socialist politics is reduced to the worshipping of dead formulas. Socialist parties, however, are not electoral organisations. The politics of everyday life, the representation of interests, and reformism are not goals in themselves. They cannot substitute for a socialist party’s participation in major and general political confrontations. Absence from politics cannot be compensated by pronouncing worn out revolutionary vocabulary on solemn occasions while maintaining distance from political debates so as not to frighten off potential voters.

Above all else, Rosa Luxemburg’s thinking was internationalist. This had in part to do with her country of origin, Poland, which had been divided among the three reactionary great powers – Austria, Germany, and Russia – since the Vienna Congress of 1814. When Polish Social Democracy was founded in 1870 it tended to see itself as a national movement inscribing on its banners the struggle for Polish unity and national independence. Luxemburg said ‘no’ – a workers’ party can never be primarily a national movement. She counselled the new Social Democratic movement: ‘You are called upon not to realise the right of nations to self-determination but only the right to self-determination of the working class, the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat.’

At times this principled primacy accorded to class interests above national interests has been disparaged as ‘bourgeois cosmopolitanism’.  However, nothing in Luxemburg’s argument is bourgeois. What she essentially said is: Capitalist development pushes beyond the borders of the nation-state. It can thus not be the task of socialists to ally with the most backward forces of society against capitalist progress. Instead, she calls upon her comrades to forge the closest possible alliance with the workers of the other nations and, in the case of their homeland, ‘to fight above all for constitutional freedom within the Russian Empire linked to autonomous freedoms for Poland’.

The Polish national state emerged in 1918 out of the rubble of the World War. Luxemburg’s position seemed refuted. But it was refuted along with the outlook of all revolutionaries who expected a European socialist revolution in 1918, and the Bolsheviks remained alone – the problem they posed could not be resolved. In Central Europe the Emperors fell, and the national revolutions that created new states stayed within bourgeois limits. Luxemburg bitterly registered the nationalist wave unleashed by the collapse of the multinational states in the wake of the First World War.

Yet Lenin’s mistake, who unconditionally affirmed the right of every nation to form its own state, seems to me today more fateful  than Luxemburg’s. The Central European system of states created after the First World War through the peace treaties of Versailles, St. Germain, and Trianon, which rested on the principle of nationality, proved unsustainable and led to the next stage of the ‘World Civil War’. Twenty years later the Second World War far outdid the First World War in terms of numbers of victims and barbarism.

This is the reason why, after this most terrible of all European wars, the unlimited right of states to sovereignty was restricted through military and economic integration in both the East and the West, and it would do incalculable damage to the peoples if three-quarters of a century later, after the demise of the order created in Yalta by the victorious allies of the Second World War, there should be another ‘nationalist Walpurgis night on Bald Mountain’, to use Luxemburg’s phrase.

The accusation has been made that her projections of the future were too far ahead of her time. This can be said of her supposition that capitalism was near collapse due to its economic contradictions. And it is also true of the ‘complete disappearance of the languages of the smaller nations’, which would lead to ‘the final pooling of the whole of cultured humanity into one language and nationality’.

One could call this ‘utopianism’ but only in the sense that all great explorers, Christopher Columbus included, were utopians who were able to indicate the general direction of a journey but who got some important details wrong and above all miscalculated the distance of the goal. It was precisely in this sense that Rosa Luxemburg pointed out a direction to us, not going back to historically outlived nationalism but a way forward to a cosmopolitan united humanity, however arduous and laborious the path is. There is, however, no other way to find an answer to the dilemma ‘socialism or barbarism’.

This article was first published on www.transform-network.net.