March 07, 2021

Brinda Karat

MARCH 5, 2021 marks the one hundred and fiftieth birth anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg, described by her comrades as Red Rosa, was a brilliant Marxist theoretician, internationalist, revolutionary, and partisan in the practical struggles of the working class. A woman of indomitable will, Rosa's strength and courage struck fear into the cruel hearts of the exploiters. She was a woman who stormed many bastions in a male dominated world and whose work and example endures a century after her brutal killing by betrayers of the working class movement, agents of the ruling classes.

Rosa Luxemburg was born of Polish Jewish parents in a middle class family in the Polish town of Zamość. At a young age she fell seriously ill and the marks of that illness, a severe deformity in her hip and leg, forced her to live with physical pain all through her life. But her frail physique and physical infirmities could not dim her immense energy fired by her commitment to socialism.

Luxemburg's political life started at the age of sixteen when she joined the Proletariat Party in Poland at a time when the Party was under severe repression. Among her first actions was her participation in the general strike that mobilised thousands of workers. The government executed four of the party leaders. Rosa and others met in secret, as many of them were on the police list. Her comrade advised her to move to Switzerland, which she did in 1889.

Switzerland at this time was the centre for many émigrés from Russia and Poland – including the Emancipation of Labour group of Russian Marxists, founded in 1883 by Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Leo Deutsch. Rosa joined Zurich University (alongside Leo Jogiches, the Lithuanian Marxist who would be her companion for their remaining lives). A brilliant student, Rosa wrote her doctoral dissertation on "The Industrial Development of Poland”. With Jogiches, she founded the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania – the main party of the Polish and Lithuanian Marxists.

Germany, in those days, was the hub of the workers' movement. It was also the centre of Marxist thought and action. The main Marxist party was the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Rosa left Switzerland for Berlin in 1898, having taken German citizenship. Rosa was initially involved in Polish affairs, since the SPD had an interest in establishing itself in the Polish lands under German control. Very soon it became clear that Rosa was not interested merely in being the Polish expert. Other debates called her.

German socialism was divided into two main and competing camps: the revolutionary trend and the revisionist trend. The revisionists advocated working within the system and giving stress to the parliamentary role. Their main spokesperson was Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein argued that the SPD had to simply move on a liberal agenda, to make the German state uphold its laws, and push the state to be generous to its working class. The direction of the German state was already toward socialism; it was the task of the SPD to push it along that evolutionary road. This was the revisionism that was the target of the booklet, Reform or Revolution written by Rosa. Rosa believed that the contradiction between capital and labour could only be overcome if the proletariat seized power and transformed the process of production. This would not be possible through "evolutionary socialism."

The SPD's left-wing consisting of August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Wilhelm Liebnecht and Rosa Luxemburg opposed Bernstein. It was left to Rosa, who had been in Germany only for two years, to take on Bernstein. Her brilliant essay, Reform or Revolution, first published in 1900, shook the Party. The essay raises some fundamental questions that remain relevant more than a century later. It charts out in a most simple, lucid and unambiguous way the relationship between tactics and strategy. It shows that there is no contradiction between struggles for social reform within the system. Rosa does not underestimate the importance of participating in elections. She stresses the use of mechanisms provided by capitalism itself, which can help mobilise the people.

It should be recalled that a somewhat parallel development was taking place in Russia eventually leading to the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. There too some of the major differences were on the issue of parliamentarianism and the bane of economism. Even at that time, Rosa's pamphlet on Bernstein's theories had broken new ground in its analysis of the different aspects of revisionism and its class roots. Thus it may be said that Rosa's contribution to the international fight against class collaboration was of no less importance than any other.

However, theory alone was not enough for his brilliant revolutionary. She was always in the thick of action. In 1905, when the first revolutionary uprising took place in Russia, Rosa smuggled herself into the Russian-held part of Poland. All meetings were banned but workers still held meetings in their stronghold, the factories. Rosa brought out a paper illegally and distributed it among the workers. She was arrested and jailed in March 1906. After four months, the authorities released her on the grounds of her ill health and her German passport. She was expelled from the country.

Rosa's differences with the revisionists as well as the group led by Karl Kautsky grew sharper and bitter. She was prescient about the danger of war and militarism driven by the imperialist ambitions of the German ruling classes, and was convinced that war was inevitable. Rosa was most concerned that the revisionist trends in her party and in many other European Socialist parties would turn an imperialist war for imperialist gain into a bloodbath of worker fighting worker in a nationalistic frenzy, destroying the revolutionary potential in the situation. She wrote a series of essays against militarism and against the Kaiser. Living in Germany, in the belly of the beast, so to speak, it was no surprise that her fight against national chauvinism preceded the struggle led by Lenin later in the Second International. She was jailed several times but used her period in prison to write more articles.

In 1907, Rosa met Lenin on the occasion of the observance of Russian Social Democratic Day. There are no records of what transpired at that meeting. Both shared a common understanding of the need to fight the revisionist trend that was engulfing many parties in Europe. Shortly after this meeting she attended the Socialist's Second International conference in Stuttgart, where she moved a resolution, which was accepted, that all workers parties should unite in their opposition to war. At the Stuttgart conference, Rosa supported her close comrade Clara Zetkin's brilliant initiatives to bring the issues of working women onto the conference agenda.

Rosa wrote many of her important works between 1907 and her assassination in 1919. In 1913, she entered the debate on the accumulation of capital with the Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to the Explanation of Imperialism. Rosa looked at the extension of capitalism into economically backward areas and the internal contradictions this created within the capitalist system. She argued that imperialism is a direct outgrowth of the internal laws of capitalist accumulation. Capitalism, in other words, tends to imperialism. There can be no fight against capitalism that was at the same time not a fight against imperialism. "The ultimate goal of socialism," she wrote in prison, "will be realised by international proletariat only when it stands up against imperialism all down the line and, with its full strength and the courage to make extreme sacrifices, makes the slogan ‘War on war’ the guideline of its practical politics."

All her energies were devoted to organising and mobilising through direct work, through her writings, through her participation in numerous meetings against the impending war. Her efforts were to organise a general strike if war broke out. She wrote, “Militarism in both its forms – as war and as armed peace – is a legitimate child, a logical result of capitalism, which can only be overcome with the destruction of capitalism, and that hence whoever honestly desires world peace and liberation from the tremendous burden of armaments must also desire Socialism.”

In 1910, Rosa and her close comrades in the SPD including Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and Franz Mehring came to the conclusion that the SPD would not change its revisionist stand. They broke away from the SPD, forming a separate group calling itself the Internationalists. This group was later to develop into the Spartakusbund (Spartacus League) and then into the Communist Party of Germany. Her activities against the war led to a number of cases against her and she was accused of "inciting to disobedience against law and order."

In August 1914 the German empire declared war against Russia. The following day the SPD representatives in parliament agreed to the financing of the war and mandatory conscription. At the same time the SPD agreed to a truce with the government promising to refrain from any strikes during the war. The Spartacus League led by Liebknecht and Rosa condemned this betrayal. They fought vehemently against it. Rosa wrote a brilliant anti-war pamphlet entitled The Crisis of Social Democracy under the pseudonym of Junius. Within a year Rosa and Liebknecht were arrested.
Discontent in Germany grew in proportion to the losses suffered during the war. In Russia the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin could turn the devastation of the war into the rallying cry for the overthrow of the Tsar. Rosa Luxemburg was in jail when under the leadership of Lenin and the Bolshevik party the first workers' state was established in Russia. The German empire refused to accept that the war had been lost. But the impact of the Russian revolution gathered stormy momentum in Germany. The following November there was a revolt by 40,000 sailors of the Imperial German Navy in Kiel. Workers' and soldiers councils, patterned on the soviets, seized control of parts of Germany. The Kaiser abdicated soon after. Rosa and Liebknecht were released from prison the same month. But the Kiel Council could not last long. The SPD once again betrayed the socialist cause. Its leader at the time Friedrich Ebert took over the government. As events showed, Ebert and the SPD acted as the agents of the ruling classes.  
In January 1919, once again there was a rebellion and a second revolutionary wave grew in Berlin. Rosa was less enthused, knowing that it could not succeed, but she supported the workers. At the instructions of the SPD-led government, the repression against the revolutionaries started. On January 15, the paramilitary forces shot down hundreds or workers. Thousands were arrested. Rosa and Liebknecht were captured. They were both brutally executed. Order prevailed in Berlin. Rosa's corpse was thrown into the river. It was found five months later.

It is a historical injustice that Rosa Luxemburg has not found the place she deserves in the annals of the international communist movement. It is true that on some important issues, Rosa's positions proved to be incorrect. She criticised the Leninist concept of a centralised party at a time when without it, the revolution itself would have been in serious jeopardy. Later, after her brutal murder and subsequent developments in the Soviet Union, those opposed to the Party used her work to selectively attack the party. This may have contributed to the reluctance to include Rosa later on as one of the communist greats. But this was quite contrary to the approach that Lenin had taken in assessing the work of this great revolutionary. Writing about the misuse or selective use of her essays on some issues by the revisionists in the Second International, particularly on the issue of a centralised party, Lenin in his Notes of a Publicist wrote of Rosa: 

“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 the 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.”

It is precisely because Rosa's work went far beyond the "mistakes" mentioned by Lenin, that he wanted her entire works to be published. She was foremost in the fight against revisionism in the German Social Democratic Party, taking on veterans like Bernstein and Kautsky. She was a true internationalist refusing to accept the ultra-nationalistic positions of social democrats over the war. She believed in class struggle. If her formulations about the dangers of over-centralisation were mistaken in relation to the party under Lenin, it cannot be denied that in subsequent years many of the dangers she had warned of did develop in many of the erstwhile socialist countries. She was martyred only a month after the Spartacus League converted itself into a communist party. She did not have the opportunity to consolidate the fledgling party, which was crushed soon after the martyrdom of its leaders. She therefore did not have the opportunity to revisit her earlier ideas that a mass party could be spontaneously thrown up by a workers' movement. Historical experience has shown the validity and necessity of the Leninist concept of a party based on democratic centralism. Nevertheless the gross distortions in the practice of democratic centralism in the former socialist countries warrant serious attention to the critiques made by Rosa Luxemburg, not so as to jettison democratic centralism but to institute checks against over-centralisation.

Yet another factor in the marginalisation of Rosa's work apart from the obvious dislike of established party leaders in Germany and Poland towards her and the distortion of her legacy is undoubtedly the lurking factor that the challenge in the ideological battle was from a woman. What needs to be underlined here is that Rosa Luxemburg pursued her political convictions without apology. Women had played a strong role in the SPD, but few women were taken seriously as theorists.  Rosa through her work indirectly questioned gender stereotyping not only for herself but in asserting her position she also challenged patriarchal notions and gender dynamics within the party, thereby building the bricks for other women revolutionaries to stand up.

Clara Zetkin, Rosa's close friend and comrade, in a most moving tribute said, "She was the sword, she was the fire of the revolution. Rosa Luxemburg will remain one of the greatest figures in the history of international socialism." She was indeed.