The Revolutionary Imagination: Rosa for Our Times

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“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”

—Rosa Luxemburg

It was 98 years ago that the brilliant socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg was murdered by a right-wing paramilitary group in Berlin. Her death in early 1919 came at the hands of one of the Freikorps death squads that roamed post-war Germany, killing left-wing workers and socialists who supported the anti-government uprisings that came with the end of World War I.

In this age of Trump, this vulgar era of rising alt-right demagoguery and violence, perpetual global conflict and entrenched social and economic inequality, it’s worth remembering the legacy of this revolutionary leader. Her politics envisioned nothing less than the complete liberation of humanity from the tyranny of social and class oppression. At the very least, the fact that a human being like Luxemburg once lived should offer hope that our sorry, troubled human species is not yet beyond redemption. But more than expressions of wistful lament for a martyred hero, Luxemburg’s legacy offers critical lessons in resistance to social injustice.

We need these lessons. For as writer Naomi Klein reminds us in the title of her new book, No is Not Enough. The broad “anti-Trump resistance” will lead nowhere if its critique doesn’t challenge the bipartisan neoliberal politics that set the stage for Trump’s rise to the White House. That critique should invariably target both the worst Republicans and the best Democrats, saying no to Wall Street and austerity politics across the board.

It’s worth remembering that the majority of ordinary Americans are working people with no intrinsic interest in perpetuating a status quo rooted in class inequality and rule by billionaires. Yet today they are essentially disenfranchised politically, their unions representing only a small workforce minority, and popular resistance limited to occasional marches and demonstrations around particular issues. Unfortunately, as long as the only mass political alternative to the retrograde right is the self-satisfied, thoroughly corporatized Democratic Party establishment, the rusted-out democratic infrastructure of modern capitalism will likely continue to produce more Trump-type rightist leaders (or worse), despite whatever fate awaits the current president.

Capitalism Has Got to Go 

What does Luxemburg’s life and legacy have to say to the realities of modern politics? First, Luxemburg had no illusions that capitalism could meet the long-term needs of society. She was no Bernie Sanders-style reformer who expressed abstract sympathy for socialism while embracing the practical reform of capitalism as her actual end goal. While still in her 20s, she wrote her famous pamphlet, Reform or Revolution, taking on those in the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) who saw the party’s steady growth in influence leading to the gradual emergence of a socialist society.

Certainly, Luxemburg did not reject political campaigns for social reforms, as the SPD championed, only the idea that they were an end in themselves. Political action for social reform legislation could not be a “long-drawn out revolution” in disguise, as many in the SPD hoped. She argued that the ruling business owners, financiers, and manufacturers would never allow their power to be gradually taken from them.

Writing at the dawn of the 20th century, Luxemburg concluded that “people who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.”

For Luxemburg, the political struggle for a new society was more daunting and thoroughgoing. She was an advocate of trade union organizing, socialist electoral campaigns, and mass action in the form of street protests, strikes, and other independent forms of social struggle. Indeed, she saw mass action as the essential motor force for the self-emancipation of all oppressed people.

As John Berger wrote in his 1968 essay, The Nature of Mass Demonstrations, “The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness.” No one understood this better than Rosa Luxemburg. “Every step forward in the struggle for emancipation of the working class must at the same time mean a growing intellectual independence of its mass, its growing self-activity, self-determination and initiative,” she wrote in 1911.

Luxemburg understood that in mass action working people acquire the experience and consciousness necessary to intervene in politics in their own name. Indeed, a worker on strike can learn more in a few weeks about who his or her friends—and enemies—are, and what power is, than from years of reading insightful books about what is wrong with society. For Luxemburg, the struggle for a new society also had to be prepared, organized, and led by a new kind of political party, one explicitly anti-capitalist and based among and led by the workers and oppressed people themselves. Nothing less could accomplish the revolutionary transformation of society.

Lessons in Life and Death 

Tragically, Luxemburg died during a time of revolutionary upheaval in Germany. Sparked by the November 1918 mutiny of war-weary sailors who refused orders to prepare for yet another battle, popular revolt began to spread across the country. The people’s revolt was substantial enough that the country’s constitutional monarch, the so-called Emperor Wilhelm II, was forced to flee and a republic was soon proclaimed.

This marked nearly a year of uprising and mass protest in Germany. The country’s capitalist rulers struggled to preserve their rule, doing so only with critical political support from Luxemburg’s former colleagues in the influential SPD. But more than SPD collusion with Germany’s rulers was needed to prevent the country from following the path of revolutionary Russia. Enter the Friekorps gangs, forerunners of Hitler’s Brownshirts, which in league with loyal government military forces killed thousands of workers and revolutionaries in the months to come.

Among their most prominent victims was not only Luxemburg, but her political ally Karl Liebknecht, the only member of the German parliament in 1914 to vote against the war mobilization. Together, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were wartime co-founders of a new antiwar revolutionary organization, the Spartacus League.

It’s unlikely either Rosa or Karl would have seen their personal fates separate from those of the world war’s many victims. That war claimed the lives of approximately 8,500,000 soldiers, mostly as a consequence of artillery attacks, small arms fire, poison gas, and disease. There were also an estimated 13,000,000 civilian deaths “largely caused by starvation, exposure, disease, military encounters, and massacres,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Set against this degraded reality, was it really Luxemburg the antiwar socialist who was the “extremist,” or was it the contemptible war-mongering leaders of the warring nations?

In fact, Luxemburg’s war writings, from her protest of the abusive treatment of German recruits by the officer caste to her scathing critiques of the hypocrisy of pro-war “socialists” and the larger crime of the war itself, revealed her to be one of the greatest, most humane writers in the history of the socialist movement. In her criticism of the SPD’s pro-war majority, The Junius Pamphlet, written in 1915, Luxemburg noted with biting irony how quickly the popular euphoria that greeted Germany’s declaration of war had crumbled before the mad pathology of the slaughterhouse Europe had become. But her greatness lies not only in her writing style, but in the spirit, clarity, and courage of her political perspective. Even though the ideas she expressed resulted in her own imprisonment, Luxemburg’s voice remained resolute in its opposition to the vile patriotic culture that glorified militarism. She branded the capitalist system criminal for what it had done to the people.

“Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society,” she wrote. “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.”

Wading in Blood, Dripping Filth 

Unlike her enemies (or, we might add, the typical conventions of modern establishment politics), Rosa never lied to justify her politics. The same cannot be said for those who killed her. “After the murder, Captain [Waldemar] Pabst repeated the official story (perhaps invented by him) that Rosa Luxemburg was killed by an ‘angry mob’ outside the hotel, while his soldiers were trying to escort her to the Moabit Prison,” writes Luxemburg scholar Rory Castle, an editorial board member for ‘The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg” project for Verso Books.

“He was not only central to ordering Luxemburg’s murder,” notes Castle, “but played a key role in organizing the series of cover-ups and rigged trials which protected the murderers (Pabst himself included) and denied justice to Luxemburg’s family, friends and supporters.”

In fact, Pabst and the other officers involved in the killings were never convicted of any crime. Only a few relatively minor penalties befell some of the participating soldiers. Notably, in 1962 the former Freikorps leader openly admitted his role in the killings in an interview with a German newspaper. As Castle reports, quoting Pabst:

“In January 1919, I attended a KPD [German Communist Party] meeting where Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were speaking. I gathered that they were the intellectual leaders of the revolution, and I decided to have them killed. Following my orders, they were captured. One has to decide to break the rule of law…This decision to have them killed did not come easy to me… I do maintain that this decision is morally and theologically legitimate.”

Morally and theologically legitimate! What right do such people have even to use such words? How often in modern times has the pretentious moral hypocrisy of politicians and war criminals been used to justify the worst human rights atrocities? Wading in blood, dripping filth, such also is the diseased pathology of a social order that considers anyone who poses a serious threat to the profits and privileges of those in power to ultimately lack even the right to life.

Murder is Bipartisan

The betrayal of Rosa and Karl was also bipartisan, to put it in American terms, a collusion between their former colleagues in the “socialist” SPD and the paramilitary practitioners of street terrorism. Accordingly, key SPD government leaders played an important role in facilitating the abduction and murder of Rosa and Karl by the Friekorps.

As Chris Hedges noted at the 2016 Left Forum in New York City, “Luxemburg’s murder illustrated the ultimate loyalties of liberal elites in a capitalist society: When threatened from the left, when the face of socialism showed itself in the streets, elites would—and will—make alliances with the most retrograde elements of society, including fascists, to crush the aspirations of the working class.”

In this age of Trump, it’s no small point to say that the “liberal” wing of American capitalist power is in its historic essentials not all that different from their right-wing brethren. Is this just political hyperbole? Not really. Do you remember the Vietnam War? Under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the Democratic party establishment was responsible for a genocidal war in Vietnam that killed as many as 3,000,000 Vietnamese people! Ironically, in those days this same political establishment liked to talk in grand terms about the morality of civil rights and voting rights, the “war on poverty” and the justice of Medicare and Medicaid.

Thus did the U.S. liberal establishment of the 1960s embrace the rhetoric of “The Great Society” at home while promoting “The Devastated Society” abroad. But it was all cut from the same cloth of privileged class rule, in service to which either repressive bombs or progressive laws are mere tools to preserve an exploitative status quo. Later, Republican President Richard Nixon took up the war’s mantle, aided by his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, who with Waldemar Pabst lives in infamy among the century’s roster of unprosecuted war criminals and human rights violators.

Wholly Courageous 

In her political writing, Luxemburg displayed an intellect on an equal plane with the greatest minds of her time. As a woman, she soared above the limits the patriarchal culture of her day would have imposed on her. She was capable of writing serious scholarly critiques of Karl Marx’s economic ideas, including teaching economics classes at the SPD school. Nor in the spirit of critical solidarity did she hesitate to criticize fellow revolutionaries, such as Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, when she thought it necessary. But she was also someone who loved nature, who mourned deeply the mistreatment of animals, whose heart was touched by music and who loved to sing.

Luxemburg was known to write personal letters to friends full of tender, nuanced observations of life that suggest the poetic soul alive in the rebel’s heart. Indeed, she combined intellectually virtuosity with emotional sensitivity in ways perhaps many of her male comrades were lacking. Yet, in defense of the people, she was never anyone other than her defiant, steeled self, nothing more nor less than human.

I thought about Luxemburg a few months ago when the daughters of murdered Honduran environmental and human rights activist Berta Cáceres, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, remembered the legacy of their mother in a CounterPunch interview

“Another thing that my mom had was the capacity to be happy, to not let herself be put down by anyone but to be joyful,” recalled her daughter Laura Zúñiga Cáceres. “Sometimes it was hard, but in the middle of any situation, instead of saying, ‘What’s happening is so terrible,’ she would laugh. It was another tool of her rebellion, and was also a way of constructing new ways of living.”

There are such people in this life, who even living under threat of violence or persecution, display a kind of courage that is wholly moral, spiritual, and physical. In this, they represent the freest people on the planet. As Luxemburg wrote from prison, the world around her a warring madhouse, “To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life ‘on the giant scales of fate’ if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud…the world is so beautiful, with all its horrors, and would be even more beautiful if there were no weaklings or cowards in it.”

That last point is a key to Luxemburg’s personality. She loved life and beauty, but loathed the unloveliness of those who sold their souls for a dollar, or looked the other way at exploitation and human suffering. She demanded courage of the world, and, as Noam Chomsky might say, that all authority had an obligation to justify itself, an obligation she more often than not found lacking in politics and society.

 The Revolutionary Imagination 

All in all, the near century since Luxemburg’s death has witnessed unremitting bloodshed and violence, the emergence not only of fascism, but of Stalinism and other forms of authoritarianism. Nor has the existence of western democratic nation states led to the advancement of peace or social equality, or to an end to global poverty. Instead, the world remains deeply divided and chronically mired in violence and social injustice.

The capitalist model of social organization has had a long time to solve the deep social problems that confront humanity. But what is its legacy? The World Health Organization (WHO) reports an estimated 191 million people lost their lives, directly or indirectly, to collective violence in the 20th century. In this case, collective violence is defined to include wars, terrorism, genocide, repression, disappearances, torture and other abuses of human rights, and organized violent crime. The 25 largest historic conflicts claimed the lives of some 39 million soldiers and 33 million civilians. Another 40 million died as a result of famine related to conflict or genocide, reports WHO.

In the current U.S. political culture where a White House cabinet member can describe the launch of dozens of cruise missiles against a Syrian air base as “after dinner entertainment” for the Mar-a-Lago crowd, it’s easy for humane people to feel superior to the crass, entitled ignoramuses who now roam the White House. But underneath such a sense of superiority can also easily lurk hopelessness and despair. Now, with the largest military in the world run by a crude, aggressively ignorant right-wing billionaire, despair, while understandable, is hardly adequate to society’s current challenges.

If it is easy today for liberals or the mildly progressive to feel superior to vulgar, right-wing politics, it might be even easier for them to sneer at the prospect that the revolutionary vision of a society beyond capitalism can ever be accomplished. Too many revolutions have failed, they object, and exploitation and greed have always been with us, it’s just human nature.

Actually, what has always been with us are those who rationalize the limits of their time, who cannot see beyond the muck and mire of the status quo. These are the minds who see “progress” as a kind of administrative process, an expert tinkering with the socioeconomic system that has no need for quaint theories about the class nature of society.

Fortunately, Luxemburg was not among them, her critical imagination fired by a different kind of propulsive fuel. Indeed, Luxemburg saw nothing preordained in the rule of the financial elite, of private capital and a social order that promotes rapacious greed and social inequality, and teaches people that war (i.e., mass murder) is just the way humans live.

After the brutal repression of the Spartacus uprising in Berlin in early 1919, knowing her life was in danger, Luxemburg took stock to put her present moment in historical context. While she understood the mass revolt had taken place in what she described as “an insufficiently ripe situation” made worse by the “weak and indecisive” actions of the revolt leaders, still for her as always, the future lay with the people.

“The masses are the crucial factor,” she wrote in her last political statement. “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.’”

Finally, she mocked those “foolish lackeys” who applauded the return of “order” to Berlin. “Your ‘order’ is built on sand,” she declared, reaffirming in the final hours of her life a deeply felt confidence in the vision of socialism. “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!”

In this spirit, the insurgent thinker lives on, despite the intentions of the criminals who killed her, or an established social order that prefers to ignore her. This is the Rosa Luxemburg that belongs to our times, the visionary and organizer whose revolutionary imagination was always burning, always preparing for the future.

Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He grew up a few blocks from the site of the old Lindlahr Sanitarium frequented by Eugene Debs in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. However, none of the teachers in the local schools ever spoke a word about Debs or the clinic. He does remember Carl Sandburg’s Elmhurst home, which was torn down in the 1960s to build a parking lot. Email: