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Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy: A reply to Jerzy Sobotta

Uli vom Hagen

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010

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THE ASSUMPTION THAT ROSA LUXEMBURG’S CORPSE has significance for the state of the German Left, though perhaps not her body, is tempting. Luxemburg was a Polish socialist involved in a European socialist movement during a time when there was no sovereign Polish state. She was successively a member of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany. As is well known, she also cofounded with Karl Liebknecht the Spartakusbund, and was briefly co-leader of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). In 1918–19 the socialist revolution in Germany was betrayed by the SPD, which is responsible for Luxemburg’s murder. Her murder matters as the pure expression of precisely that revisionism that Luxemburg had so ably critiqued. However, Jerzy Sobotta, writing in Platypus Review 16 (October 2009), does not seem to be interested in this legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, the legacy of free thought and revolutionary Marxism.

There is much to say regarding Luxemburg’s legacy for the revolutionary Left of German Social Democracy, not least her criticism of the politics of Lenin and Trotsky. In his article, Sobotta neglects to discuss the summer and autumn of 1923, arguably the second most important period for the German Left after World War I due to its potential for the regeneration of a social revolution in Germany and Europe once the principles of the October Revolution had been narrowed by the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP). Karl Radek, close to Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky, as well as a leading figure in the Comintern, traveled from Russia to Germany in early 1923. There Radek and the KPD leadership recognized in the new leftwing SPD government in Saxony an opportunity to advance toward a second German revolution. This was the reason why Radek proposed at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) in June 1923 that the KPD enlarge the basis for the revolution by winning over patriotic workers and nationalist social revolutionaries in the Ruhr industry region. He thus embraced the “Schlageter Line,” which called for joining the workers’ resistance campaign against the French occupation and establishing thereby a “cross front,” or merger of national-revolutionary and revolutionary socialist forces. As Radek urged at the time,

The petty bourgeois masses and the intellectuals and technicians who will play a big role in the revolution are in a position of national antagonism to capitalism, which is declassing them...If we want to be a workers’ party that is able to undertake the struggle for power, we have to find a way that can bring us near to these masses, and we shall find it not in shirking our responsibilities, but in stating that the working class alone can save the nation.[1]

For Radek, taking party propaganda to the workers’ hunger and material needs alone was insufficient to win their hearts and minds. This was a break with Luxemburg, who had seen national determination only with reference to the needs of economic development. Radek, however, stood with Lenin in criticizing the inability of traditional German Marxist groups to grasp the workers’ desire for patriotic belonging. The proletariat’s nationalism was more than a cultural phenomenon; rather, it had a political dimension that was not opposed to communist internationalism. Indeed, it alone provided the necessary basis for international solidarity between the workers of different nations. Social revolutionary anti-capitalism of all sorts was vivid in 1920s Germany: the German National Bolshevik movement—very similar to Titoism in post-World War II Yugoslavia—was mainly formed by the experience of military communism in the trenches. It focused its anti-capitalism on young people from all classes rather than only on the proletariat, insisting that each nation find its own road to socialism. It had roots in the German Youth Movement, e.g. the Wandervogel, a back-to-nature movement emphasizing freedom, self-responsibility, the spirit of adventure, and older, culturally diverse traditions. This organization was anti-bourgeois and often Teutonic-pagan, composed mostly of middle class young people organizing themselves in autonomous cells called “Bunde” (bands). It generally allowed Jews into its ranks. Racism and anti-Semitism were not issues for National Bolsheviks who derived much of their unity from a romantic, heroic, communitarian ethos and an utter hatred of what would become the Nazi party.

While Radek continued to combine the “Schlageter Line” and a united front with the left-wing Social Democrats, the class struggle in Germany intensified in the summer of 1923. Together with Trotsky, he fought tirelessly against the fatalism and complacency existing in both the German and Russian Communist parties and for a strict timetable for insurrection. This was opposed most strongly by Stalin, who argued that the workers still believed in social democracy. Ultimately, the armed uprising was set for November 9, 1923. To this end, the KPD joined leftwing SPD governments in Saxony and Thuringia on October 10 and 16, 1923, respectively, calculating they would gain access to the police armories. Because the left-wing Social Democrats eventually disapproved of the insurrection, the KPD cancelled the plans for a general strike and concomitant uprising. The missed revolution of November 1923 would have dire consequences; that same month Adolf Hitler began his rise to power by staging a coup in Munich.

Almost a decade later, the infighting continued on the Left between German Social Democrats and Communists. This prevented the formation of an effective united front to fight Nazism. The last free parliamentary election of the Weimar Republic of November 6, 1932, saw a drop for Hitler’s NSDAP and increases for the KPD, although the Nazis remained the largest party. Moreover, legal power was handed to Hitler by bourgeois forces in January 1933, who even supported him in March 1933 by accepting the Enabling Act, a law that allowed Hitler to pass laws for four years without either parliamentary consent or control. Once the internationally prestigious event of the 1936 Olympic Games was over, the political climate became even worse. But the fascist regime was not internationally isolated. For example, in 1938, four months after the German annexation of Austria, the American industrialist Henry Ford accepted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the Nazi regime’s highest honor for foreigners before the outbreak of World War II. On November 9, 1938—not 1939—the fascist attacks against the Jewish German population had become more systematic, violent, and widespread. The SPD had long ceased to exist by that time, while the KPD could only survive on a much diminished basis underground, as many of their leading organizers were in concentration camps. Still, the Communists did eventually manage to get in contact with the young “Socialist Counts”[2] who became the German military insurrectionists of July 20, 1944. In fact, some of those officers stood in the National Bolshevik tradition.

But Sobotta’s dismissal of the National Bolshevik tradition is not his only error. After the war, the West German Left may have been bourgeois, but I fail to see how “these revolutionary children” would have agreed with the Old Nazis on an issue such as anti-Semitism, as Sobotta claims when he writes, “And this [the presence of Jewish survivors] proved to be unbearable, not only for the old Nazis, but also for their revolutionary children.” Those leftists, the revolutionaries of the 1960s, never called the legitimacy of a peaceful Jewish settler state into question. Rather, they were left perplexed and speechless by the atrocities the Jewish settlers inflicted on the Palestinians. Small, violent anti-Zionist groups like the terrorist RAF (aka the Baader-Meinhof Group) should not be seen as representative for the entire generation of the 1960s. Rather, many of the issues, ideas, and lifestyle practices of the American and German hippies of the 1960s and 1970s, such as vegetarianism, natural medicine and healing, nudism, and bohemian clothing, derive from the early 20th century German youth movement. The generation of 1968, however, was unable to advance a coherent anti-capitalism. As a consequence, they found themselves unable to check reformism in a decisive manner before the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

The new Left Party of Germany (Die Linke) has many currents: social democratic, anti-capitalist, libertarian socialist, syndicalist, reform communist, even Trotskyist. Consequently, it has many internal conflicts, but nevertheless represents a united front. Some in Die Linke, like Gregor Gysi, support Israel, while others support the Palestinians. But Sobotta accuses the whole party of being anti-Semitic and racist. There is certainly much wrong with Die Linke, but these charges are without foundation. Further, it is distasteful that Sobotta affirms the Antideutsch position that solidarity with Third World movements is solidarity with barbarism. Such arrogance reeks of much more than “unfreedom”; it derives from Western supremacism. Sobotta’s attempt to somehow tie Luxemburg’s murder to the collapse of the old German Left and to the mediocrity of Die Linke is unconvincing. In the place of a thoroughgoing analysis, he seems content to simply appropriate the memory of Luxemburg in the service of an apologia for Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank.

There is good reason to believe that Die Linke is becoming yet another social democratic party, stabilizing capitalist reforms without building a base for independent working class political action. Such a failure would truly dishonor the memory of Luxemburg and her humane, democratic vision of communism. But this has not yet come to pass, so that today the Left can still learn from Luxemburg’s words: “The circumstances which divide socialist politics from bourgeois politics is that the socialists are opponents of the entire existing order and must function in a bourgeois parliament fundamentally as an opposition.”­[3]

In Europe the Left’s dilemma is the transnational dimension of European Union politics while workers remain attached to a national understanding of politics. Luxemburg still has great significance to many European socialists, communists, and anti-capitalists—her legacy is a transnational one for a Europe with a new economic and political base that decentralizes power, allows for personal liberty, and extends wealth equally. Whether Die Linke and its European counterparts are truly ready to live up to Luxemburg’s legacy remains an open question. Her main contribution for a regeneration of the Left is her insistence on radical democracy within revolutionary Marxism. In the programmatic points of Die Linke there is much talk about “economic democracy,” which appears to hold great promise, though this concept has not yet been seriously expanded upon by the party’s leaders. Generally, socialism shall be redeveloped in a communal, creative, and participatory way. Some South and Central American societies are already working rigorously on this endeavor in promising ways that embrace the slogan, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” |P


[1]. Quoted in Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 726.

[2]. See John Wheeler-Bennett, Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics 1918 – 1945 (London: Macmillan, 1954), 624.

[3]Rosa Luxemburg, “The Socialist Crisis in France,” in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary Alice Waters (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), 102.

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