The many interpretations of Rosa Luxemburg's legacy

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The new edition of Rosa Luxemburg: The Biography by J.P. Nettl is out now in UK (out on January 29 in North America), and 40% off until January 21st to mark the 100th anniversary of her death. See all our Rosa Luxemburg reading here.

Read an excerpt below from Nettl's introduction to this classic biography of one of the leading twentieth century revolutionaries and political thinkers.

To many casual readers in the West Rosa Luxemburg has come to represent the most incisive defender of the democratic tradition in Marxism against the growing shadow of its misuse by the Bolsheviks. In so far as revolutionary Marxism can be democratic, Rosa Luxemburg stands at its apex. She has become the intellectual sheet-anchor of all those old, but ever young, radicals who think that Communism could have been the combination of violence and extreme democracy. In their frequent moments of nostalgia it is the name Rosa Luxemburg that they utter. Her death in action ended any possibility of giving effective battle to the Bolsheviks and also sanctified her views with the glow of martyrdom. But the difficulty is that these same Bolsheviks and their followers, whose ascendancy she is supposed to have resisted, have also claimed her for their own.

In spite of her alleged mistakes and misinterpretations they see her ultimately committed to Communism in its struggle against Social Democracy; had she lived she would have made the choice even more decisively than in the confusion of 1918. Once again the date of her death is crucial­ as well as its form. Communist tradition can no more afford to ignore a martyr than any other embattled faith-and so someone who later might well have been buried with all the obloquy of a renegade, today still retains her place in the official pantheon, by dying early and by dying hard.

So the first reason for Rosa Luxemburg's importance in the history of political Marxism is the unique moment of her death. She and Karl Liebknecht were perhaps the only Marxists who committed themselves to the Bolshevik revolution in spite of fundamental criticisms, which are as old as that revolution itself. What makes Rosa Luxemburg's case especially interesting is that her debates with Lenin on certain fundamental Marxist problems date back to 1903-they are central to her philosophy. Others in Russia had departed from or quarreled with Bolshevism long before 1917-quite apart from those who were never within sight or sound of sympathy with Lenin. These had nothing to contribute to orthodox revolutionary Marxism after 1917. An even more important group came to differ from Leninism as it evolved into Stalinism; they opted out of the charmed circle of Communist politics. Trotsky and his followers, and all those purveyors of a precise conscience who orbited on the periphery of revolutionary Marxism from the 1920s onwards, suffered from the same two major disabilities: lack of a disciplined mass following to compensate for the organized support of Soviet power, and the ideological distress of having suddenly to prise themselves loose from their inheritance of the October Revolution. There was little political and even less psychological room for a genuinely uncommitted middle position between friend and foe-the limbo of sophistry that characterized Trotsky and many lesser spirits for so many years. The awful alternative was either to deny the validity of the original event-the revolution-or to claim that it was those in power in Russia who deviated from some purely intellectual norm set by the dissidents. The lack of a 'neutral' tribunal made it all too easy for official Communism to elbow these people out as traitors-by the reality of sheer power and weight of argument. Rosa Luxemburg, however, could neither be brushed aside as irrelevant before 1917 nor denounced as a traitor afterwards

When she died she was a critical supporter; in her own words, 'Enthusiasm coupled with the spirit of revolutionary criticism­ what more can people want from us?' She too would no doubt have had to make a more concrete choice had she lived. But death is final, it freezes into perpetuity the views, however tentative, held at the time. The most that could be done was to speak of Rosa Luxemburg's 'errors'-and to avoid any detailed analysis of her contribution and attitude in their historical context. There is a strange but severe honesty about Communist historiography. Trotskyism, Bukharinism, even Menshevism, are historical deviations, their 'treachery' has a beginning, a middle (development), and an end (discovery and condemnation); their 'theory' is the product of historical action and is welded to it irrevocably. It can be proved by identifiable actions during specific events. Not so Luxemburgism. This is pure inductive theory, built up mostly from writings; once established (posthumously), it could be deduced in turn from other writings. It hangs in the air-a purely theoretical construct. Even during the worst Stalin period, Luxemburgism never became treason; it led to opportunism but was never one of its 'proofs', or essential components. Silence was the rule for twenty years after 1933, or occasional stiff and stilted references-brickbats accompanying the political slaughter. As in an old-fashioned cartoon, Luxemburgism was trapped in a bubble and taken away to safe storage, while Luxemburg herself remained without blemish, an active but unthinking revolutionary personality of the second rank. No one else has had their person and their ideas separated so assiduously. Even though Stalin always insisted that errors could not be abstracted from those who made them­– 'it is wrong to separate Trotskyism from the Trotskyites'–this connected condemnation of sin and sinners was never applied in the same way to Rosa Luxemburg.

None of this is new. Our continuing interest in the life and works of anyone who left behind so many unresolved ideas, and who was handled so uniquely, is only natural. But there are also good reasons why the relevance of Rosa Luxemburg's ideas should be greater today than at any time since the 1930s. With the death of Stalin, Communist theory has ceased to be merely the iron-clad accretions and deposits of the dictator's own notion of Marxism­Leninism. The bands have burst and with them a lively, if uneven, froth of speculation has broken out. The impetus came directly from the top, but was taken up and carried forward from lower down. To take an example: Khrushchev and the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party have carried out a reinterpretation of war, both as a feature of competing imperialisms and as an ‘inevitable’ consequence of the confrontation between capitalism and socialism. Now, with the destructive power of modern technology, war has become the ultimate disaster once more, very like the summum malum, the blight of all civilization, which it was to Rosa Luxemburg. The fact that the proletariat, as the majority of the population, provides also the majority of victims was as obvious to Khrushchev as it was to Rosa Luxemburg, and both put it in very similar terms.

While history has decided some of the issues against her, a substantial part of her so-called errors prove on closer examination to be based not on what Rosa Luxemburg said or meant but on later interpretation of her work, hammered out in the course of political controversy. She is relevant because of, as well as in spite of, these interpretations. We shall have to disentangle them. But both matter. As long as Marxism exists politically, no contributor can ever become irrelevant. Marxist writers may be deliberately annihilated, but they never die or fade away.

This is, in a very special sense, true of Rosa Luxemburg. The refined implications of her ideas fade into a colourless background compared with the freshness of their presentation. She had much of that vital quality of immediate relevance which she praised so highly in Marx himself, often to the detriment of his actual arguments. She made Marxism real and important in a way which neither Lenin nor Kautsky nor any other contemporary was able to achieve, even more so than Marx himself, for his most attractive writing was also the most dated. She was total where Lenin was selective, practical where Kautsky was formal, human against Plekhanov's abstraction. Only Trotsky had the same vitality, but, as far as his pre-war writing was concerned, only in retrospect, a belated attribute of his post-revolutionary stature. Though there are hardly any Luxemburgists, in the way that there were Stalinists and still are Trotskyites, it is almost certainly true that more people at the time found their early way to revolutionary Marxism through Social Reform or Revolution and other writings of Rosa Luxemburg than through any other writer. And justly so. The very notion of Luxemburgism would have been abhorrent to her. What makes her writing so seductive is that the seduction is incidental; she was not writing to convert, but to convince.

Not only the quality of her ideas, then, but the manner of their expression: the way she said it as much as what she said. The bitter tug-of-war for Rosa Luxemburg's heritage was a struggle for the legitimacy bequeathed by an important Marxist and in even more outstanding exponent of revolutionary Marxism. Social Democracy of the 1920s, particularly the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), thought that it could see in her an ardent advocate of democracy who sooner or later was bound to come into conflict with oligarchical and arbitrary Bolshevism. Such an interpretation was cherished particularly by the many ex-Communists who left the party in the course of the next thirty years. They found in Rosa Luxemburg's undoubted revolutionary Marxism, combined with the frequent use of the words ‘masses’, ‘majority’, and ‘democracy’, a congenial lifebelt to keep them afloat either alone or at least on the unimportant left fringe of official Social Democracy.

Nearly every dissident group from official Communism­–German, French, or Russian–at once laid special and exclusive claim to the possession of Rosa Luxemburg's spirit, and it is significant that Trotsky, whose relationship with Rosa Luxemburg had been impersonal and hostile for a decade, claimed her spiritual approval for the Fourth International from the day of its foundation.

The Communists were in no way prepared to let her go. However, to answer Social Democracy and their own dissidents it became necessary to interpret her work in such a way that those items and quotations on which the enemy based its case could be knitted together into a whole system of error. It no longer sufficed to shrug these off as so many isolated mistakes, and in due course Communist theorists constructed for and on behalf of Rosa Luxemburg a system called Luxemburgism, compounded from just those errors on which Social Democracy relied. The person became increasingly separated from the doctrine, rather like the English notion that the Crown can do no wrong. The fiercer the Communist struggle against Luxemburgism, the greater the attachment to the revolutionary personality of Luxemburg, stripped of its errors. As we have seen, this delicate surgery made Rosa Luxemburg unique in Communist history. Though the result of later political controversy, the fact that the operation was worth doing at all is striking evidence of the continuing importance of the victim, or beneficiary. One of the tasks of this book is to undo some of the effects of surgery and show how much of Luxemburgism can genuinely be attributed to Luxemburg and how much is later addition. The ideas of Rosa Luxemburg will be examined afresh after all the accretions of politically inclined historians have been scraped away. But camouflage is never neutral. In eradicating one vision it creates another, like a badly restored fresco. We have not merely to remove the screen but to destroy a false image before we can appreciate the real one. This is a more difficult and lengthy task than merely commanding the presence of something which previously was not known at all.

Rosa Luxemburg's revolutionary Marxism may yet conceivably become a specific political doctrine in its own right–intellectually, Trotskyism in the West today is really Luxemburgism. Trotsky pre-empted the devotion of all Marxist revolutionaries who opposed Stalin because of his enormous prestige, and the majestic tragedy of his political defeat in Russia. His person and his polemics drew nearly all anti-Stalinists into his orbit for a while. By identifying every opponent as an ally of Trotsky and using the vast and disciplined slander-factory of the entire Soviet state to discover Trotsky behind every real or imagined plot, Stalin helped to divide the world of revolutionary Marxism into two camps, and only two: orthodox Communists and Trotskyites, with the latter presented as the Marxist allies of counter-revolution. Yet the history of Trotskyism since 1930 is not a glorious rally of oppositional forces but a sad series of sectarian disputes. Trotsky's historical position as one of the chief architects of the October Revolution prevented him from developing a critique broad enough to generate an all-embracing anti-Stalinist movement, intellectually committed to proletarian revolution in all its Bolshevik ruthlessness, yet without Stalin's narrow and fearful bureaucracy, itself terrorized and terrorizing. Instead Trotsky fell out with group after group of his non-Russian supporters over talmudic minutiae in the precise and dogmatic interpretation of Stalin's Russia as an example of valid Socialism. The Stalin/Trotsky antithesis, which both parties helped to make into an over­ riding and irrevocable division between revolutionary Marxists, actually subsumed all preceding arguments and pushed them into limbo. There was simply no room for anyone else. But Rosa Luxemburg, fervent supporter and at the same time profound and immediate critic of the Bolsheviks, would have provided just the rallying point for a broad rather than narrow opposition to Stalin: untainted by original participation, yet wholly revolutionary in its own right. Perhaps one day revolutionary, as opposed to reformist, Marxists will go back all the way to the beginning, to the primacy of highly developed capitalist countries in the calendar of revolutionary experience, to the ‘enthusiasm coupled with revolutionary criticism’ of the pre-emptive October Revolution. It is admittedly improbable, and even less probable is any loosening in this direction within Russia or China, the established Communist giants, for all the present unravelling of Stalinism.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, there is Rosa Luxemburg's position as an autonomous political thinker, irrespective of whether one believes in, repudiates, or is simply indifferent to Marxism. Her ideas belong wherever the history of political ideas is seriously taught. Though she herself was fully committed to Marxism, the validity of her ideas transcends the Marxist framework. For hers was an essentially moral doctrine which saw in social revolution, and socialist revolutionary activity, not merely the fulfilment of the laws of dialectical materialism but the liberation and progress of humanity. Rosa Luxemburg preached participation above all, not merely the passive reward of benefits from the hands of a conquering elite. And participation is the problem that still occupies most political analysts today, Marxist and bourgeois alike. Rosa Luxemburg’s controlling doctrine was not democracy, individual freedom, or spontaneity, but participation–friction leading to revolutionary energy leading in turn to the maturity of class-consciousness and revolution. Though it is undesirable and meaningless to try and lift her writings one by one out of the context of Marxism (to which they most emphatically belong), the significance of her life's work and thought is not confined to Marxists alone–just like Marx's own achievements. The value of the few really original political thinkers cannot be tagged with the artificial label of any school or group. Even the most orthodox disciples can become a burden; like barnacles they have to be painfully scraped away. The claim of universal validity beyond context is precisely what distinguishes the great from the merely partisan.

This is quite apart from any claim that can be made for Rosa Luxemburg on purely historical grounds. Even without any present relevance she would be a figure of great historical importance, both in the Polish and the German Socialist movements. Her little-known role in the Russian movement, though not of first-rate importance, yet deserves mention and research at least as much as those of some of the very marginal figures who have benefited from the prevailing interest in the minutiae of Bolshevik history. It would be a distortion to base the excuse for this book entirely on the permanent relevance of all Rosa Luxemburg's views. This will be indicated where deserved. The bulk of what she wrote and did belongs to history. But what history! To more than a quarter of thinking people in the world today the period we deal with is the prophetic years, the Old Testament of the Communist Bible, without which the final incarnation of revolution has little meaning. In this context the history of any prophet is important, even if his vision was often cloudy and inaccurate.

The new edition of Rosa Luxemburg: The Biography by J.P. Nettl is out now in UK (out on January 29 in North America), and 40% off until January 21st to mark the 100th anniversary of her death. See all our Rosa Luxemburg reading here.

In this classic biography J.P. Nettl provides an extraordinary portrait of one of the leading twentieth century revolutionaries and political thinkers.

*this book will release in North America on January 29

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