Rosa Luxemburg memorial at the site where she was thrown into the Landwehr Canal, Berlin. (Manfred Brückels / CC-BY-SA)
On the night of Jan. 15, 1919, a group of the Freikorps—hastily formed militias made up mostly of right-wing veterans of World War I—escorted Rosa Luxemburg, a petite, 50-year-old with a slight limp, to the Eden Hotel in Berlin, the headquarters of the Guards Cavalry Rifle Division.
“Are you Frau Rosa Luxemburg?” Capt. Waldemar Pabst asked when she arrived at his office upstairs.
“You decide for yourself,” she answered.
“According to the photograph, you must be,” he said.
“If you say so,” she said softly.
Pabst told her she would be taken to Moabit Prison. On the way out of the hotel, a waiting crowd, which had shouted insults like “whore” as she was brought in under arrest, whistled and spat. A soldier, Otto Runge, was allegedly paid 50 marks to be the first to hit her. Shouting, “She’s not getting out alive,” he slammed the butt of his rifle into the back of her head. Luxemburg collapsed. Blood poured from her nose and mouth. Runge struck a second time. Someone said, “That’s enough.” Soldiers dragged Luxemburg to a waiting car. One of her shoes was left behind. A soldier hit her again. As the car sped away, Lt. Kurt Vogel fired his pistol into her head. The soldiers tossed Luxemburg’s corpse into the Landwehr Canal.
Karl Leibknecht, who had coaxed a reluctant Luxemburg into an uprising she knew was almost certainly doomed, had been executed a few moments before. The Spartacus Revolt was crushed. It was the birth of German fascism.
The killers, like the police who murder unarmed people of color in the streets of American cities, were tried in a court—in this case, a military court—that issued tepid reprimands. The state had no intention of punishing the assassins. They had done what the state required.
The ruling Social Democratic Party of Germany created the Freikorps, which became the antecedent to the Nazi Party. It ordered the militias and the military to crush resistance when it felt threatened from the left. 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.
Liberalism, which Luxemburg called by its more appropriate name—“opportunism”—is an integral component of capitalism. When the citizens grow restive, it will soften and decry capitalism’s excesses. But capitalism, Luxemburg argued, is an enemy that can never be appeased. Liberal reforms are used to stymie resistance and then later, when things grow quiet, are revoked on the inevitable road to capitalist slavery. The last century of labor struggles in the United States provides a case study for proof of Luxemburg’s observation.
The political, cultural and judicial system in a capitalist state is centered around the protection of property rights. And, as Adam Smith pointed out, when civil government “is instituted for the security of property, [it] is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” The capitalist system is gamed from the start. And this makes Luxemburg extremely relevant as corporate capital, now freed from all constraints, reconfigures our global economy, including the United States’, into a ruthless form of neofeudalism.
Wage slavery and employment are not determined by law but by the imperatives of the market. The market forces workers to fall to their knees before the dictates of global profit. This imperative can never be corrected by legal or legislative reform.
Democracy, in this late stage of capitalism, has been replaced with a system of legalized bribery. All branches of government, including the courts, along with the systems of entertainment and news, are wholly owned subsidiaries of the corporate state. Electoral politics are elaborate puppet shows. Wall Street and the militarists, whether Trump or Clinton, win.
“Capitalist accumulation requires for its movement to be surrounded by non-capitalist areas,” Luxemburg wrote. And capitalism “can continue only so long as it is provided with such a milieu.”
Capitalism searches the globe to exploit cheap, unorganized labor and pillages natural resources. It buys off or overthrows local elites. It blocks the ability of the developing world to become self-sufficient.
Meanwhile, workers in the industrialized world, stripped of well-paying jobs, benefits and legal protections, are pushed into debt peonage, forced to borrow to survive, which further enriches global speculators.
An economy built on credit, Luxemburg foresaw, transforms a regular series of small economic crises into an irregular series of large economic crises—hence two major financial dislocations to the U.S. economy in the early part of the 21st century—the dot-com collapse of 2000 and the global meltdown of 2008. And we are barreling toward another. The end result, at home and abroad, is serfdom.
Luxemburg, in another understanding important to those caught up in the pressures of a single election cycle, viewed electoral campaigns, like union organizing, as a process of educating the public about the nature of capitalism. These activities, divorced from “revolutionary consciousness”—from the ultimate goal of overthrowing capitalism—were, she said, “a labor of Sisyphus.”
We who seek to build radical third-party movements must recognize that it is not about taking power now. It is about taking power, at best, a decade from now. Revolutions, Luxemburg reminded us, take time.
In an understanding that eludes many Bernie Sanders supporters, Luxemburg also grasped that socialism and imperialism were incompatible. She would have excoriated Sanders’ ostrichlike refusal to confront American imperialism. Imperialism, she understood, not only empowers a war machine and enriches arms merchants and global capitalists. It is accompanied by a poisonous ideology—what social critic Dwight Macdonald called the “psychosis of permanent war”—that makes socialism impossible.
The nation, in the name of national security, demands the eradication of civil liberties. It defines dissent as treason. It creates a centralized system of power that ultimately—as has happened in the United States—serves the dictates of empire rather than democracy. Democracy becomes farce, or in our case, a tawdry reality show that coughs up two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in American history. Society devolves into what Karl Marx called “parliamentary cretinism” or what political theorist Sheldon Wolincalled “inverted totalitarianism.” Democracy is a facade.
Capitalism is ruled by two iron dictums—maximize profit and reduce labor costs. And as capitalism advances and consolidates power in a world where resources are becoming scarce and mechanization is becoming more sophisticated, the human and environmental cost of profit mounts.
“The exploitation of the working class as an economic process cannot be abolished or softened through legislation in the framework of bourgeois society,” Luxemburg wrote. Social reform, she said, “does not constitute an invasion into capitalist exploitation, but a regulating, an ordering of this exploitation in the interest of capitalist society itself.”
Capitalism is an enemy of democracy. It denies workers the right to control means of production or determine how the profits from their labor will be spent. American workers—both left and right—do not support trade agreements. They do not support the federal bailouts of big banks and financial firms. They do not embrace astronomical salaries for CEOs or wage stagnation. But workers do not count. And the more working men and women struggle to be heard, the harsher and more violent the forms of control employed by the corporate state will become.
Luxemburg also understood something that eluded Vladimir Lenin. Nationalism—which Luxemburg called “empty petty-bourgeois phraseology and humbug”—is a disease. It disconnects the working class in one country from another—one of the primary objectives of the capitalist class.
As parties on the left and the right—in our case, the corporate Democrats and corporate Republicans—vie to be more patriotic and hawkish, they deify the military and the organs of internal security. They revoke basic civil liberties in the name of national security and law and order. This process grooms a segment of the population, as we see in Trump rallies, for fascism.
Nationalism, Luxemburg warned, is always a tool used to betray the working class. It is, she wrote, “an instrument of counterrevolutionary class policy.” It unleashes powerful forms of indoctrination.
As the contagion of nationalism erupted at the outbreak of the First World War, liberal European parties, including the German Social Democrats, swiftly surrendered to right-wing nationalists in the name of the fatherland despite many preceding years of anti-war rhetoric. Luxemburg saw this betrayal as evidence of the fundamental moral and political bankruptcy of the liberal establishment in a capitalist society.
By the time the war was over, 11 million soldiers on all sides, most of them working-class men, were dead. Capitalists, who had grown rich from the slaughter, had nothing to fear now from the working class. They had fed them to the mouths of machine guns.
Luxemburg distrusted disciplined, revolutionary elites—Lenin’s vanguard. She denounced terror as a revolutionary tool. She warned that revolutionary movements that were not democratic swiftly became despotic. She understood the peculiar dynamics of revolution. She wrote that in a time of revolutionary ferment, “It is extremely difficult for any directing organ of the proletarian movement to foresee and calculate which occasions and factors can lead to explosions and which cannot.” Those who were rigidly tied to an ideology or those who believed they could shape events through force, were crippled by a “rigid, mechanical, bureaucratic conception.”
Revolutions, for Luxemburg, were as much the product of mass struggle as its instigator. She knew that revolution was a “living” entity. “It was formed not from above,” but from the “consciousness of the masses.” And this consciousness took years to build. A revolutionary had to respond to the unpredictable moods and sentiments that define any revolt, to the unanticipated responses of a population in revolt.
Lenin, to achieve power during the 1917 revolution, was forced to follow her advice, abandoning many of his most doctrinaire ideas to respond to the life force of Russian Revolution itself. “Lenin,” Robert Looker wrote, “was a Luxemburgist in spite of himself.”
A population finally rises up against a decayed system not because of revolutionary consciousness, but because, as Luxemburg pointed out, it has no other choice. It is the obtuseness of the old regime, not the work of revolutionaries, that triggers revolt. And, as she pointed out, all revolutions are in some sense failures, events that begin, rather than culminate, a process of social transformation.
“There was no predetermined plan, no organized action, because the appeals of the parties could scarcely keep in pace with the spontaneous rising of the masses,” she wrote of the 1905 uprising in Russia. “The leaders had scarcely time to formulate the watchwords of the on-rushing crowd.”
“Revolutions,” she continued, “cannot be made at command. Nor is this at all the task of the party. Our duty is only at all times to speak out plainly without fear or trembling; that is, to hold clearly before the masses their tasks in the given historical moment, and to proclaim the political program of action and the slogans which result from the situation. The concern with whether and when the revolutionary mass movement takes up with them must be left confidently to history itself. Even though socialism may at first appear as a voice crying in the wilderness, it yet provides for itself a moral and political position the fruits of which it later, when the hour of historical fulfillment strikes, garners with compound interest.”
I have covered uprisings and revolutions around the globe—the insurgencies in Central America in the 1980s, two Palestinian uprisings, the revolutions in 1989 in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania, the street demonstrations that brought down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. Luxemburg’s understanding of the autonomous nature of revolt is correct. A central committee, like Lenin’s Bolsheviks, because it is ruthless, secretive and highly disciplined, is capable of carrying out a counterrevolution to take control of and crush the democratic aspirations of the workers. But such organizations are not the primary engine of revolution. The messiness of democracy, with all its paralysis and reverses, keeps revolution alive and vibrant. It protects the population from the abuse of centralized power.
“Without general elections, without freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, without the free battle of opinions, life in every public institution withers away, becomes a caricature of itself, and bureaucracy rises as the only deciding factor,” Luxemburg said.
The consequences of not carrying out a revolution against corporatism are catastrophic. This makes Luxemburg vital. She warns us that in a crisis, the liberal elites become our enemy. She cautions against terror and gratuitous violence. She urges us to maintain open, democratic structures to ensure that power rests with the people. She keeps us focused on the ultimate savagery of capitalism. She understands the danger of imperialism. And she reminds us that those of us committed to socialism, to building a better world, especially for the oppressed, must hold fast to this moral imperative. If we compromise, she knew, we extinguish hope.