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International Socialist Review, January-February 1969



In Memory of Rosa Luxemburg


From International Socialist Review, Vol.30 No.1, January-February 1969, pp.1-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the closing month of the first world war the soldiers and workers of Germany rose up in a revolution which came close to toppling capitalist rule in that country. Their victory would have brought desperately needed aid to the newly formed workers’ government of Russia and would have changed the whole course of twentieth-century history. Soldiers got revolutionary propaganda from the Bolsheviks in the opposing trenches and from the Spartacus League in their own ranks. The sailors at the Kiel naval base mutinied to establish a sailors’ council to rule that city; soldiers’ councils sprang up on the fronts and workers’ councils in the major cities.

Although it overthrew the monarchy, this mighty upsurge had been driven back into the channels of capitalist politics within months. Its two foremost leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, lay murdered in Berlin. The Weimar Republic had been founded – that shaky coalition between the social democracy, bourgeois and even royalist parties – which was destined to collapse into the hands of Hitler’s Nazis sixteen years later.

Lenin had predicted in 1916 that the revolution in Germany would be slow in starting, but once it got under way would move with the speed of a locomotive. The dizzying pace of events in the winter of 1918-19 completely corroborated this prediction. The last months of Rosa Luxemburg’s life were intimately bound up with these events.

An implacable opponent of the imperialist war, she had spent three and a half of its four years in prison. The people of Breslau stormed the prison and liberated Rosa Luxemburg from confinement November 9, 1918, the same day the revolution surged into Berlin. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the streets. After the Hohenzollern Kaiser abdicated, appointing right-wing social-democratic leader Fritz Ebert “Reich Chancellor,” Karl Liebknecht addressed workers from the balcony of the Imperial Palace, proclaiming the establishment of a Socialist Republic to be ruled by the Soldiers’ and Workers’ Councils. Hours later, Ebert, reluctantly conceding that the power temporarily rested with the workers’ committees, set about to wrest it back to the safe confines of a bourgeois parliament. That same evening he secretly reached agreement with the Hohenzollern generals to cooperate in the restoration of “law and order” – the crushing of the revolution.

Luxemburg arrived in Berlin November 10. Paul Froelich, her biographer and comrade in the Spartacus League, writes that her friends greeted Rosa

“with concealed sadness, for they suddenly realized what the years in prison had done to her: She had aged terribly, and her black hair had gone quite white. She was a sick woman, but her eyes shone with the old fire and energy. Although she urgently needed rest and recuperation, there was no rest for her. Two months were left of her life, and they were filled to the utmost with almost superhuman efforts.”

Rosa immediately set out to do what ultimately proved impossible, although she spared no energy in the task: This was to mold a revolutionary party which could take the leadership of the masses in revolt and direct their struggle toward the seizure of state power. She resisted the rush to deflect this struggle into the electoral path, knowing that this could only result in losing the power of the workers’ councils to a new form of the old bourgeois rule. She urged that the revolutionized masses drive forward along the course they had spontaneously taken November 9. As she explained to the founding congress of the Communist vanguard:

“The ninth of November was an attempt, a weak, half-hearted, half-conscious, and chaotic attempt, to overthrow the existing public authority and to put an end to ownership rule. What is now incumbent upon us is that we should deliberately concentrate all the forces of the proletariat for an attack upon the very foundations of capitalist society.

“There, at the root, where the individual employer confronts his wage slaves; at the root, where all the executive organs of ownership rule confront the objects of this rule, confront the masses; there, step by step, we must seize the means of power from the rulers, must take them into our own hands.” (Program for Revolution, International Socialist Review, May-June 1967)

However, two major political factors prevented the forces under the leadership of Luxemburg and Liebknecht from mobilizing the masses to carry out this program at that critical juncture. One was the fact that the social democracy did not simply present an undivided counterrevolutionary face under the right-wing leadership of Ebert, Philipp Scheidemann and Gustav Noske. A large section of the social democracy, which had split from the right-wing faction on the war question in 1916, was not clearly identified with its policies and acts.

This Independent Social Democratic Party, under the centrist leadership of Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, and Georg Ledebour, finally voted against war credits for the imperial army – two years after the outbreak of war – thereby rehabilitating its image in the eyes of the war-sick masses. But this did not deter the “Independents” from following the same electoral path as the right wing in 1918 and abandoning the revolution to enter the coalition government.

In the second place, the Spartacists themselves, who opposed the war from the outset, remained as a faction in the Independent Socialist Party long after they should have separated from it to promote the construction of a truly revolutionary party. That split was delayed until December 1918, when the revolution was already nearing its peak. It proved impossible at that late date to win over quickly enough the majority of workers to the revolutionary program of the Communist Party, as the new party modeled after Lenin’s Bolsheviks was called.

The Spartacist leaders realized that time was needed to reorganize the revolutionary vanguard and communicate their line of strategy to the rebelling workers and soldiers. But the impatience of the insurgents on one hand, and the provocations of the counterrevolutionary authorities on the other, doomed their efforts.

In the first week of January an abortive uprising took place in Berlin. Although the Spartacist leaders had opposed it as advenruristic, they assumed the leadership after failing to hold it back. When the uprising was defeated, January 8, the bourgeois and right-wing social-democratic press fomented a hysterical witch-hunt atmosphere to cover their deliberate tracking down and murder of the famed Spartacist leaders. Disguised and in hiding, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were seized in a working-class suburb January 15, 1919, and murdered by cavalry officers the same night under Noske’s direct instructions.

* * *

We are commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of this assassination by publishing two of Rosa Luxemburg’s lesser-known writings which illustrate different sides of the talents of this remarkable woman. What both the work of literary criticism and the manifesto against capital punishment express, is the profound and deeply moving socialist humanism of their author – one of the few totally principled and uncompromising revolutionary political leaders of our century.

Against Capital Punishment

Life of Korolenko

Introduction, by George Saunders

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