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Rosa Luxemburg’s corpse

The stench of decay on the German Left, 1932–2009

Jerzy Sobotta

Platypus Review 16 | October 2009

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IN MAY OF 2009 SCIENTISTS IN BERLIN claimed to have unearthed the corpse of the martyred revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg. Stored in the cellar of a hospital, the corpse had neither a head, nor feet, nor hands. The stump of a corpse of Rosa Luxemburg lay rotting in a basement, subjected to the un-tender mercies of modern forensic science.

Less than fourteen years after the death of one of its greatest leaders, the German Left died. Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor, after which what can best be described as the suicide of the Left took place. The proletarian world revolution, when it was needed the most, on the day of January 20, 1942—the day of the Wannsee Conference, where the mass annihilation of European Jewry was decided—did not take place. Instead, the mass of German workers, the revolutionary subject for the emancipation of mankind, was transformed into Volksgemeinschaft, the German collective based on race, blood, soil, and concrete labor. The class conflict, based on the fundamental antagonism between use value and exchange value, had to be externalized because there was no place for it in the organic body of the Germans. Auschwitz was the German nation’s revolt against its mortal enemies, exchange value and the sphere of circulation.

In much the same way that the British relate to the Magna Carta, the Americans to their war of independence, and the French relate to their revolution, so the Germans relate to National Socialism—except, in the German case, the relationship is condemned. Through Nazism, German ideology, which had previously been criticized by Marx, took on an altogether different quality after the Shoah.

In the face of the Cold War, the Allies gave up their attempt to denazify Germany. Teachers, lawyers, and politicians who had loyally served the Nazi regime were rarely replaced and were instead allowed to remain in positions of power and influence. But more important than such personal continuities were the ideological ones. As Adorno wrote in the sixties, “National Socialism lives on, and even today we still do not know whether it is merely the ghost of what was so monstrous that it lingers on after its own death, or whether it has not yet died at all, whether the willingness to commit the unspeakable survives in the people as well as in the conditions that enclose them.”

The post-war silence surrounding Nazism was broken by the New Left and the student movement of 1968, who aggressively criticized their parents’ generation for complicity with fascism and exterminatory anti-Semitism. This theme was one of the most important aspects of the anti-authoritarian mood that developed among the youth in Germany. In those years, the broad Left understood itself as fighting fascist tendencies in Germany.

But as long as the victims were still alive, their very presence served to remind the perpetrators of their crimes. And this proved to be unbearable, not only for the old Nazis, but also for their revolutionary children. In 1969—the same year that Adorno, in correspondence with his old friend Marcuse, wrote, “Might not a movement, by the force of its immanent antinomies, transform itself into its opposite?”—the radical left-wing group Tupamaros West-Berlin placed a bomb in the city’s Jewish Community Center. The date: Kristallnacht, November 9, the anniversary of the nationwide anti-Semitic pogroms of 1939. Only a technical defect in the bomb prevented the shedding of blood. In a leaflet the group declared,

True anti-fascism is the clear and simple expression of solidarity with the fighting fedayeen. No longer will our solidarity remain only with verbal-abstract methods of enlightenment as in the case of Vietnam… The Jews who were expelled by fascism have themselves become fascists who, in collaboration with American capital want to eradicate the Palestinian people. By striking the direct support for Israel by German industry and the government of the Federal Republic, we are aiding the victory of the Palestinian revolution and force for the renewed defeat of world imperialism. At the same time, we expand our battle against the fascists in democratic clothes and begin to build a revolutionary liberation front in the metropole.[3]

Later years were marked by growing radicalization and militancy. Anti-imperialism, Maoism, and solidarity with national liberation movements in the Third World peaked. The Red Army Faction (RAF), the biggest left-wing terrorist organization at that time, more popularly known as the “Baader-Meinhof Gang,” even went as far as to praise the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Ulrike Meinhof, one of the group’s founders, wrote, “The action of Black September in Munich has exposed the nature of imperialistic dominance and the anti-imperialistic fight, transparent in a way as no revolutionary action before in West Germany and West Berlin. It was at the same time anti-imperialist, anti-fascist and international.”

Four years later, in 1976, German left-wing extremists of the Revolutionary Cells (RZ) collaborated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in the hijacking of an Air France plane to Entebbe, Uganda. There the hijackers separated Jewish passengers from non-Jews and forced the latter off the airplane. The operation ultimately concluded with the liberation of the hostages by Israeli special forces, the Sayeret Matkal.

The response of the German government to such widespread terrorism, including hundreds of bombings and dozens of murders, was the restriction of civil liberties. In the seventies and eighties, especially after Mao’s death in 1976, many groups dissolved themselves and the radical Left took on issues like ecology, pacifism, and anti-militarism. The founding of the nonviolent Green Party in the early 1980s was the logical consequence of this development. In 2002 the Greens achieved political power by forming a coalition with Rosa Luxemburg’s old party, the SPD, which reformed itself as a center-left party after World War I, dropping all revolutionary ambitions.

Recently, the political development in Germany has been the founding of a new party, Die Linke, or “The Left.” Founded in 2007, out of a merger between some left-wing SPD dissidents and the successors to the parties that had ruled East Germany, Die Linke has grown rapidly in strength, achieving electoral results as high as 13 percent. Despite the appearance of success, Die Linke is merely another sad example of what it means to be leftist in post-Nazi, post-unification Germany. In 2005, the party’s leader and main spokesman Oskar Lafontaine proclaimed, “The state is obliged to protect its citizens. It is obliged to prevent family fathers from becoming homeless because foreigners take their jobs for lesser wages.” Although Die Linke openly criticizes capitalism and the party sporadically cooperates with old-style Marxist-Leninist parties, its criticism of capitalism, once meant to lead humanity to a “society of free human beings,” in fact reeks of unfreedom. The stench of Lafontaine’s words is worse than that emanating from Luxemburg’s rotting torso: “We want to overthrow capitalism… We will change the economic order.”[4] Elsewhere he declares, ”If the gamble hell of casino-capitalism can be found somewhere, than it is in New York. If money rules the world, then New York is the world’s capital.”[5]

Nationalism, racism, and anti-Americanism are the main ideological weapons of Die Linke. Capital, the circulation sphere, and abstract value are their enemies. The glorification of state and concrete labor is their answer to the crisis of late capitalism.

The early eighties saw the first signs of awareness of the theoretical bankruptcy of the German Left. Beginning with a few individuals polemicizing against the anti-Semitic character of the pro-Palestinian consensus, a current in the radical Left came to strongly oppose the reunification of Germany, which finally took place in 1989. This current, which became known as the Anti-Deutsch tendency, was at that time a much more diverse and heterogeneous current unified by a shared concern about the possible reemergence of fascism in German society. Shortly after the reunification, Germany saw the most extreme xenophobic riots of the post-war period, with perhaps the most striking incident occurring in a suburb of Rostock, in the former East, where a crowd of several hundred militant right-wing extremists, backed by around 3,000 locals, hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at a house used by asylum-seekers. The police were unable to stop the raging mob and after three days the attackers outnumbered the police forces. At the same time, the increasingly aggressive rhetoric of German politicians, including discussions about greater militarization and a “legitimate” expansion towards the East, underscored the reasons for Anti-Deutsch to be concerned. Consequently, they made efforts to reflect this development theoretically. The Gulf War in 1991 and the resulting pacifist or even pro-Hussein sentiments of the broad German Left produced an insurmountable gap between Anti-Deutsch and other leftists. The new current of Anti-Deutsch began with a re-reading of Marx that breaks with the old anti-imperialism. This renewed focus on Marx, especially the theory of value, and on Critical Theory took place together with attempts to intervene in the Left.

Most recently, in the wake of the anti-Semitic attacks of 9/11 and in the face of the fraternization of the global Left with the Ba’athists in Iraq and Islamists in Afghanistan and Palestine, Anti-Deutsch concluded that solidarity with Third World movements is solidarity with barbarism. Emancipatory, communist critique had to be articulated against the Left.

The rotten, headless, and footless corpse, with its unbearable stench of resentment, has been left for the bourgeois scientists and their cadaver-eating leftist counterparts. The only question that matters: How could it have been left to rot for such a long time? |P


[1]. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” in Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 3–4.

[2]. Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” in New Left Review I/233 (Jan–Feb 1999): 129.

[3]. Wolfgang Kraushaar, Die Bombe im Jüdischen Gemeindehaus (Hamburg: Hamburger Editions HIS Verlagsges, 2005), 48.

[4]. Oskar Lafontaine, “We Want to Overthrow Capitalism,” interview by Spiegel Online, May 14, 2009.

[5]. Oskar Lafontaine, “Das Ressentiment hat einen Namen—Oskar L.,” Wartezeit überbrücken, posted March 24, 2009.

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