Workers Vanguard No. 1037
10 January 2014
From the Archives of Marxism
John Reed on Liebknecht and Luxemburg
Upholding the revolutionary traditions of the early Communist International, we commemorate the “Three L’s” this month, marking the assassination of German Communist Party founders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on 15 January 1919 and the death of Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin on 21 January 1924. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered by reactionaries amid the counterrevolutionary terror unleashed by the Social Democratic government against a workers uprising.
Karl Liebknecht’s name is synonymous with intransigent opposition to one’s “own” bourgeoisie in the crucible of interimperialist war. His declaration that “the main enemy is at home” became the watchword for generations of revolutionaries at times of war between imperialist powers. When the Social Democratic Party fraction voted for the Kaiser’s military budget at the Reichstag (parliament) session of 2 December 1914, Liebknecht, then a member of the party, broke ranks and cast the sole vote against war credits. With Liebknecht prohibited from motivating his vote on the Reichstag floor and barred from the German press, his statement was published in a Dutch socialist newspaper.
Recounting Lenin, Liebknecht and Luxemburg’s revolutionary opposition to their “own” capitalist governments is particularly timely as bourgeois ideologues, with no small amount of hypocrisy and deception, begin to mark the centenary of the outbreak of “the war to end all wars” in August 1914. WWI was not caused by an assassin’s bullet but by the struggle of the imperialist powers to redivide the world and further their exploitation of labor and control of markets. While some nine million mainly working-class conscripts would die as the imperialists’ cannon fodder, the carnage would also lead to the world’s first successful proletarian revolution—the Russian October Revolution of 1917 under the leadership of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.
We print below a piece by John Reed from a special issue of The Revolutionary Age devoted to Liebknecht and Luxemburg and published on 1 February 1919. The ellipses were part of the article as printed. Reed was a radical American journalist who was won to Bolshevism while reporting on the October Revolution. His book Ten Days That Shook the World vividly depicts the insurrectionary days in Petrograd. Upon his return from Russia, Reed was instrumental in founding the American Communist movement. The Revolutionary Age was the organ of the left wing of the Socialist Party, out of which emerged many of the pioneers of American communism.
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Karl Liebknecht’s Words
By John Reed
When I was in Berlin in December, 1915, I went to see Karl Liebknecht. He had an office in a district Social Democratic headquarters, in the poorer section of the city—on a street, I remember, which looked very like Washington Street in Boston. It was a large, bare room, the walls hung with pictures of Bebel and the elder Liebknecht, and memorials of historic events in the great history of the German Social Democracy.
Liebknecht sat at a table in the middle of the room, the lower half of his face faintly illuminated by a green-shaded lamp. He wore a semi-military coat buttoned up to the neck. There were dark circles under his eyes, but that was all the evidence of fatigue about him. His hand played nervously with a paper-cutter as he talked; his eyes never left mine. His face was dark and full—almost round—with a gentle expression.
The door to the inner hall had been left open. It was empty, except for two or three forlorn-looking women in widows’ weeds, who were sitting sadly and motionless on chairs along the wall, waiting for some official of the branch on business connected with death-benefits....
“The war?” I asked, pointing toward them. Liebknecht nodded. “The best of us—” he said slowly, in halting English interlarded with German words.
I had not seen the statement which Liebknecht had sent out to Holland, and which was even then being published all over the world, especially by the Allied capitalist press—then calling him “the bravest of the brave.” So it was more or less natural that I should ask him whether his attitude of extreme hostility to the War and the Government was still the same.
“There is no other attitude for a Social Democrat to take,” he said, with a faint smile of amusement. “As each problem of capitalist aggression arises, it must be met full and squarely. In spite of the prodigious influence brought to bear in all countries of the world upon their peoples, the international working class is still not convinced that this War is their War. As representative of the workers, I voice this sentiment.”
“And the chances of world Revolution?”
“To my mind,” he answered serenely, “nothing else can come out of the War.”
This is practically all of our conversation. Other questions which I asked him, which if he had answered, might have revealed the plans and projects of the movement, or the work then being done, he refused to answer. After all, he did not know me....
Rosa Luxemburg I never knew, but from talks about her with comrades who did, I have come to think of her as one of the great constructive brains of the Left Wing movement in Europe—an intellect which, like Lenin’s in Russia, would have been of incalculable value in the establishment of the new order in Germany, of which Karl Liebknecht was the flaming prophet.
Liebknecht was arrested, and while being taken in an automobile to prison by a group of “armed volunteers,” (no doubt aristocratic young officers), was shot “while trying to escape” “when the automobile broke down” crossing the Tiergarten. In other words, he was taken to a quiet spot and simply murdered. Rosa Luxemburg met a more terrible fate. She was beaten to death by a “white-collar mob,” and her body thrown into the canal.
It was the bourgeoisie of Berlin, of Germany, of the world—the bankers, business men, officers, “respectable people”—who actually did the killing.
But it was the Ebert-Scheidemann Government, the Kaiser Socialists, so long detested by the Allied capitalist press—who by suppressing the revolt of the German working-class with the aid of the Kaiser’s troops, allowed that mob to shoot holes in Karl Liebknecht’s back and trample the life out of Rosa Luxemburg. And the Allied capitalist press applauds....
What the capitalist newspapers have to say about it is a matter of comparative indifference to us. We are occupied with a closer and more dangerous enemy in our own ranks—the moderate Socialists, who, to their other crimes against the workers, have now added the crime of murder.