SPD

100 Years Ago: The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg

100 Years Ago: The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg

“Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. No, still more; today we are not only in a position to perform this task, its performance is not only a duty toward the proletariat, but its solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction.”

These were the words of socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg in a speech given on New Year’s Eve of 1918, just two weeks before her death. The First World War, a pointless bloodbath of nationalistic slaughter, had been ended only a month before, after four long years and the loss of around 17 million lives. The war was not ended by either the benevolence or the rationality of the rulers of the European empires which had contested it; it took the onset of the German Revolution to stop the massacre.

This was the context in which “Red Rosa” proclaimed the overthrow of capitalism to be the only means of saving human society from destruction, and rightly so: the imperialist wars we have seen in the hundred years since the First World War ended have caused unspeakable suffering. If anything, her words are even more relevant to the world of today than they were when she uttered them a century ago, with the ecological catastrophe capitalism is unleashing poised to make the very planet we live on uninhabitable — unless we can stop this mad system in the next decade.

Who Was Rosa Luxemburg?

Born in 1871 to a Jewish family living in Poland, Rosa Luxemburg became a Marxist at a very young age, and began organising workers to fight the system which exploited them as soon as she was able to. She joined the Proletarian Party in 1886, but had to flee the country three years later, aged just eighteen, after a failed attempt to lead a general strike resulted in the execution of four of the party’s leaders, and the organisation being disbanded.

After living in Switzerland and France for a few years, Luxemburg decided that she needed to base herself in the country where the socialist movement was the strongest at the time: Germany. She became a German citizen in 1897, and immediately began to immerse herself in the politics of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (‘Social Democratic Party of Germany’ or ‘SPD’), which at the turn of the century was the largest and most influential working class party in the world. To her alarm, however, what she quickly realised was that, instead of the SPD being the bastion of revolutionary socialism everybody believed it to be, in reality the party was becoming increasingly more conservative, watering down its programme, and focusing in practice on trying to win reforms through parliamentary elections instead of trying to build a movement to overthrow capitalism altogether and establish a socialist system in its place.

Luxemburg’s seminal work was a series of articles which became the book Social Reform or Revolution? (written in 1898-99 and updated in 1907), in which she sought to explain that, while it would be foolish for the SPD and other socialist parties to dismiss the vital importance of participating in and building on workers’ struggles to win reforms which could reduce their immediate suffering, ultimately capitalism is a system which has chaos, destruction, and the exploitation of the masses built into it; it is not a system which will ever be able to deliver lasting order or prosperity for everybody. She mounted a passionate defence of the core Marxist belief — nominally the belief of the SPD, despite attempts to “revise” and “update” what Marx and Engels argued in The Communist Manifesto (1848) — that the only way to win a society which could truly and permanently deliver a better life for all would be for the working class to conquer political power for themselves.

She stressed the importance of the fact that the capitalist class only became the ruling class in society because of their revolutionary overthrow in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries of both the feudal system, and the class which benefited from it. The capitalists did not settle for mere reforms within a political, social and economic framework which was never designed to function in their interests in the first place. Why should the workers’ ambitions for a better world be restricted to compromising with the capitalist system which is not designed to benefit us?

The crux of her argument as to why capitalism in the long term could not be reformed in the interests of the working class revolved around mocking the notion that the capitalist economy had managed to solve, or at least moderate, its regular crises. Arguments proposing this theory are always put forward during economic booms by capitalist ideologues, as well as by those who want to reform but not overthrow the system. Supposed “proof” that crisis was no longer a central part of the capitalist economy was presented in Rosa Luxemburg’s time by leading SPD reformist Eduard Bernstein and his followers, just as similar “original” theories to this effect were put forward during the 1920s, 1950s-60s, and, most recently, during the 1990s-2000s.

Immediately after Luxemburg published her book rejecting reformism, an economic crisis struck, as crises under capitalism always do. There have, of course, been many economic meltdowns since, all of which have proven both the capitalist and reformist conceptions of the system utterly wrong. No crises have humiliated proponents of the idea that “we have ended boom and bust” more so than the catastrophic global collapses of 1929 and 2008, both of which shook capitalism to its very core, and produced immense resistance — both socialist resistance and, unfortunately, reactionary resistance — to the powers that be. We are living through such a period of rising resistance and polarisation today.

Luxemburg — every bit as fiery a public speaker as she was a writer — addresses a crowd of workers.

In another crucial work, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Luxemburg sought to explain the causes and consequences of these periodic economic crises. Her argument, which has caused much controversy among Marxists — especially due to her claim that Marx had made an error in Volume II of his magnum opus Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (which was published posthumously in 1885 by Marx’s life-long friend and collaborator, Engels) — was that capitalism can never truly resolve its crises, because the quantity of commodities the system produces must always be significantly greater than the market for purchasing these commodities. The explanation for why this is came from Marx’s theory of surplus value, which says that the profits which capitalists make must necessarily come directly from the capitalists paying their workers less than the value of the work they perform. In a system in which making profit is the dominant factor which drives the economy forward, no capitalist in their right mind would pay their workers more than the absolute minimum necessary at any given time. But the workers are the market. It is the vast majority of people who must consume what they have made, and by holding down the wages of the working class in order to increase the bosses’ profits, capitalism also takes away the workers’ means of consumption. In this act, the capitalist class cut away their own ability to profit from the commodities their workers have made, and the whole economy goes into a “crisis of overproduction” in which more value has been created than can ever be realised under the system.

Her argument then goes that the only way capitalism can continue to function in this context is to constantly expand into new markets through imperialism, to offload all the excess capacity in the economy. In doing so, it must — sometimes peacefully, but more often violently — bring the entire world into the system. Once it had done this, however, there would be nowhere left to go, and no more opportunities left to resolve the crises of the system — and the house of cards would collapse.

The Accumulation of Capital describes with remarkable foresight the events which have unfolded in the century after its publication. When China entered properly into the capitalist system in 1979, and when the USSR — the dictatorship which was for most of its existence in name, but not in practice, “socialist” — collapsed in 1991, capitalism had at last expanded into the remaining major economies of the world. Then the second greatest recession capitalism has ever experienced then broke out in 2008, followed by one of the weakest, if not the weakest recoveries in history — with the prospect of another, possibly even worse economic crisis on the horizon. Luxemburg’s theory is crucial as one part of (though by no means the whole of) the explanation as to why capitalism’s latest crisis is so deep and long-lasting now that the system appears to have exhausted all of the most significant avenues for imperial expansion.

War and Betrayal

But Luxemburg did not have to wait a hundred years to see her theory vindicated — a series of tragic events unfolded, and she was proved correct. Just one year after The Accumulation of Capital was published, the First World War broke out. The war was a direct result of what Luxemburg described: the capitalist powers of Europe had little room to expand their system into at that moment in time, and going to war with each other to try and redivide their existing empires was the only option which remained to them. How sadly prescient Luxemburg was. She described the war with her typical eloquence and moral outrage:

“Violated, dishonoured, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.”

From The Junius Pamphlet, written by Luxemburg from prison in 1915 — she was locked up for opposing the war effort

Even more tragically, Luxemburg’s foresight was demonstrated in a second way: the parliamentary wing of the SPD, along with the politicians of nearly every other social democratic party in Europe (the Bolsheviks in Russia were a notable exception) voted in favour of their countries joining the First World War. Before 1914, the socialist parties of the world had all agreed upon the correct course of action if the capitalists were to try and start a military confrontation, and in doing so risk the lives of millions of working people: that the workers of all countries, realising they had far more in common with each other than they did with their capitalist masters, should unite, stop the war, and overthrow the system which tried to force them to kill each other. When the reformists in the German party, supposedly the bastion of international socialism, chose nationalism and its bloody barbarism over every principle they had previously proclaimed to uphold, Luxemburg rightly condemned the SPD as “a stinking corpse”. The social democratic so-called leaders abandoning the working class in their greatest hour of need, choosing the horrors of war over resistance and solidarity, remains to this day one of the most calamitous and murderous decisions in human history.

War Becomes Revolution, and Luxemburg Is Murdered

A rally in Berlin during the 1918 German Revolution.

The blood-letting was finally halted in November 1918, when first the sailors, then the workers and soldiers of Germany revolted against their rulers. In two short weeks, the German Revolution put an end to the war, and forced the ruler of the German Empire, the Kaiser, into resigning on November 9th. With workers’ and soldiers’ councils forming across the country, the “moderate” pro-war leader of the SPD, Friedrich Ebert, demanded to be made Chancellor. When Philipp Scheidemann, the SPD’s Deputy Leader, heard that Karl Liebknecht, a comrade of Luxemburg who had also been imprisoned for resisting the war, intended to declare Germany a “Free Socialist Republic”, Scheidemann instead grabbed the initiative and issued his own declaration of Germany becoming a republic, in a mad scramble to legitimise the SPD’s claim to government. Liebknecht’s declaration came just two hours later, two kilometers away from Scheidemann’s.

A power struggle then emerged. As had happened the previous year in the early months of the Russian Revolution, the working class looked first, once they had overthrown their capitalist rulers, to the established leaders of the labour movement — the reformists. Meanwhile, the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (‘Communist Party of Germany‘ or ‘KPD’), newly formed by the anti-war revolutionaries who had left the SPD in disgust, had a hasty debate as to whether or not to stand in the parliamentary elections of January 1919. Despite Luxemburg’s arguments, the majority of the KPD voted to boycott those elections — a grave error which only gave more legitimacy to the victorious reformists. Ebert and Scheidemann swiftly formed a government.

The KPD set about developing a programme for how to carry the revolution forward. Luxemburg knew, as Lenin and Trotsky had known in Russia, that the success or failure of the revolution would depend on striking at the right moment. Try to start a revolution before you have popular support, and failure will be inevitable. In Russia, this knowledge had compelled the revolutionaries to go to the factories and frantically convince the most radical elements in the working class not to start an uprising in July 1917, as the Bolshevik leadership knew that it was too early, and that they needed a majority in the workers’ and soliders’ councils. They declared the revolution only upon obtaining this majority in October, and succeeded as a result. Luxemburg knew the importance of ensuring the KPD did not move too quickly.

Unfortunately, in a meeting Luxemburg did not attend, the KPD leadership decided to call for a revolution in the first week of January. Upon Luxemburg hearing that her friend and comrade Karl Liebknecht had been among those who voted in favour, she was horrified, and wrote to colleagues that “it would no longer be possible to go on working [with him] in future.” But she also knew that it was too late to turn back, and joined the attempt to start an uprising, despite her certainty that it would have disastrous consequences.

The uprising was crushed, and, I must confess, I started to well up a little while trying to write about what happened next. The thought of anyone — especially someone so intellectually outstanding, so passionately committed to human freedom, and so brave in the face of her enemies — being tortured to death is bad enough. The fact that it was on the orders of her own ex-comrades is devastating beyond description.

The SPD under Ebert and Scheidemann had enlisted the “Freikorps” to crush the KPD’s attempted revolution. The Freikorps were paramilitary groups of far-right WWI veterans who had returned to Germany believing that the socialists and the Jews had “stabbed the fatherland in the back”. They were all too happy to assist the reformist government in crushing the revolution.

On 15 January 1919, one hundred years ago yesterday, the social democratic government, lead by the party Rosa Luxemburg had been a passionate member of for 17 years, ordered the Freikorps to capture and kill her and Karl Leibknecht. After they were both tortured and questioned, Leibknecht was shot, and his body was delivered unnamed to the Berlin morgue. Rosa was knocked to the ground by a rifle butt, before a bullet was turned on her as well. Her body was dumped in the nearby canal.

Many of the members and leaders of the Freikorps were to later become the basis for Hitler’s SS divisions — the Nazi secret police who carried out some of the worst crimes of that horrifying regime between 1933 and 1945.

Why We Remember

It is beyond crucial that we remember the lessons of the German Revolution, and the mistakes that were made by the KPD. It is beyond crucial that we remember the treachery of the power-hungry opportunists who were willing to murder working class leaders in order to cling on to their positions in government — only to have that government overthrown by the Nazis they had empowered just 14 years later. The cowards reaped what they had sown, and helped contribute to the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the deaths of 60 million people.

And of course, we should remember Rosa Luxemburg herself. A hero of the working class, who devoted every fiber of her being, and every day of her life, to ending the capitalist nightmares of exploitation, economic crisis and war. An idealist who envisioned a society in which true freedom and democracy could reign supreme — but also a cool-headed theorist, who so many times warned of the barbarism capitalism was preparing to unleash, and of the dangers of the socialist movement taking the wrong path in its struggle to prevent such barbarism. So many times she was proven, tragically, right.

Her last published words, reflecting on the KPD’s devastating mistakes in trying to start the revolution too early, were written so powerfully and so poignantly, as if she knew her enemies would be coming to kill her, and as if to give to those of us who remember her the courage to organise and fight, and fight again, instead of mourning her loss. But then again, having only read a fraction of her writings so far myself, I have found that everything she published had this same character which was represented in her final article: eloquence and clarity in every aspect, with not a word wasted — each sentence giving wisdom and guidance to the workers to which she gave her life, and her death. Her final written paragraphs tell us precisely the way to honour her memory. Everybody who gives their energy, their passion, their mind and their muscle to the struggle for working class liberation is continuing the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg. How proud she would be of each and every person who does so.

“The leadership failed. But a new leadership can and must be created by the masses and from the masses. The masses are the crucial factor. They are the rock on which the ultimate victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were up to the challenge, and out of this “defeat” they have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. That is why future victories will spring from this “defeat.”

“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!”

January 14, 1919
Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxemburg remembered.



This article has been republished. You can read the original here.

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist.

16 January, 2019

Posted by Elliot Crossan in History, International politics, 0 comments