Workers Vanguard No. 1060
23 January 2015
From the Archives of Marxism
Honor Rosa Luxemburg!
From Lenin, Liebknecht, Luxemburg by Max Shachtman
“Today the bourgeoisie and the social-traitors are jubilating in Berlin—they have succeeded in murdering Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Ebert and Scheidemann, who for four years led the workers to the slaughter for the sake of depredation, have now assumed the role of butchers of the proletarian leaders. The example of the German revolution proves that ‘democracy’ is only a camouflage for bourgeois robbery and the most savage violence.
“Death to the butchers!”
—“Speech at a Protest Rally Following the Murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg,” 19 January 1919
This was Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin’s cry of rage after the assassination of two revered Marxist leaders of the German proletariat. They were murdered by the fascistic Freikorps at the behest of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) government of Friedrich Ebert and Philipp Scheidemann as it moved to crush the unfolding workers revolution in that country. German Social Democracy had proved its rottenness on 4 August 1914, when SPD deputies in parliament voted to fund the German military in World War I. Against the social-traitors Ebert & Co., Liebknecht and Luxemburg fought for revolutionary proletarian internationalism. In the tradition of the early Communist International, every January we honor the memory of these revolutionary fighters, the “Three Ls”—Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Lenin himself, who died on 21 January 1924.
The appreciation of Luxemburg reprinted below comes from the undated pamphlet Lenin, Liebknecht, Luxemburg published by the Young Workers (Communist) League of America sometime between 1924 and 1928. The pamphlet’s author, Max Shachtman, was expelled in 1928 from the U.S. Communist Party for supporting the Left Opposition led internationally by Leon Trotsky. The Trotskyists fought down the line against the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet workers state and the Communist International. Although Shachtman would break from Trotskyism during World War II and eventually become an open supporter of U.S. imperialism, he was for a time a revolutionary leader and talented proponent of Marxism.
The excerpt below erroneously states that Berlin police chief Emil Eichhorn was removed from office a year after the founding of the German Communist Party. In fact, it was only a few days later, as the article on the facing page lays out in greater detail.
August 4, 1914. The world was astounded by the social democratic vote on war credits. But Rosa wasted not a moment. Declaring the social democracy a whited sepulchre, a foul corpse, she grouped around herself the cream of the revolutionary wing of the old party. With her came Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, Franz Mehring, Wilhelm Pieck, Clara Zetkin, [Ernst] Meyer and others. A small band they were, but immediately they proceeded to their task. Illegal literature was spread at every opportunity. Flaming appeals against the imperialist war were the order of the day. Rosa Luxemburg, who had written her famous open letter to [French social democrat] Jean Jaures six years before, arguing against his declaration that the alliance between France, England and Russia was a step towards peace, was being confronted by the truth of her own prophetic words.
The workers were beginning to come out of the stupor resulting from the first shock at the socialist betrayal. Within six months the small handful of revolutionists had grown to greater proportions despite its illegality and the hindrances in its way. In February of the year following the declaration of war, representatives from many cities gathered to found the group of “The International.” To combine legal with illegal work they proposed to issue a magazine with the name of their group at its head and with Red Rosa as its editor. This brilliant organ was declared illegal after the publication of the first number.
And now the sentence against Rosa for her Frankfurt speech [in 1914 against the imperialist war] was confirmed and she was once more imprisoned for a year. Surrounded by stone and iron she continued to carry on her agitation as though she were free. With the cooperation of the faithful Leo Tyszka [Jogiches], her oldest friend and co-worker, she issued numbers of Die Internationale, which stands today as the official theoretical organ of the party she founded, the German Communist Party, a monument to her work. From prison, also, she wrote her famous pamphlet, “The Crisis in the German Social Democracy,” which became known far and wide as the Junius brochure, since she was unable to sign her own name to it and was therefore obliged to use the pseudonym Junius.
“Shamed, dishonored, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics—as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity—so it appears in all its hideous nakedness. And in the midst of this orgy a world tragedy has occured: the capitulation of the social democracy.... It forgot all its principles, its pledges, the decision of international congresses, just at the moment when they should have found their application.”
Bitterly did she scourge the social democratic traitors; scornfully she lashed to tatters their false arguments of national defense; and skilfully she exposed the imperialist roots of the war. Yet here also she relied too greatly upon the spontaneous action of the masses. Unlike Lenin she did not raise the inspiring slogan: Turn the imperialist war into a civil war of the proletariat against its oppressors! And Lenin, while greeting joyously this noble revolutionary voice crying in the sterile desert of shameless betrayal, did not fail to criticize this omission in his own book, “Against the Stream,” which he collected together with other articles written by Zinoviev.
Against the stream! “It is never easy to swim against the current, and when the stream rushes on with the rapidity and the power of a Niagara it does not become easier!” said the older Liebknecht [Karl’s father Wilhelm]. And yet Rosa swam bravely with her comrades against the streams of blood which were being shed in the imperialist slaughter. Released from prison just before Liebknecht’s arrest [for speaking against the war in 1916] at the famous May Day demonstration, she was soon rearrested to be released only by the first revolution in Germany [in November 1918]. Again there flowed from prison a constant stream of propaganda from her fertile pen. From her prison cell were written the famous Spartacus Letters. There also she replied to the critics of her “Accumulation of Capital” which had been published before the war, in which she attempted to set forth a Marxist theory of imperialist political economy. From that cell, too, came the letters to the wife of Karl Liebknecht which portrayed the sensitive and lovable soul of this uncompromising rebel, her love for life and struggle. There also her pamphlet on the Russian revolution, unfortunately composed on the basis of misinformation, the errors of which she later partially corrected, and which was triumphantly published by the renegade Paul Levi [after his departure from the Communist Party] who attempted to use it to justify his own cowardice and to attack the first working class republic.
“This madness will not stop, and this bloody nightmare of hell will not cease until the workers of Germany, of France, of Russia and of England will wake up out of their drunken sleep; will clasp each other’s hands in brotherhood and will drown the bestial chorus of war agitators and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the mighty cry of labor, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’”
Thus had she ended her Junius brochure. And when the German revolution followed the successful uprising in Russia she was freed, together with Liebknecht, again to take up her incessant struggle for the workers’ cause. With new hopes the two Spartacans renewed their labors to build up a Communist Party in Germany. Battle-scarred, undaunted, they proceeded to unite the revolutionary forces of Germany: the Spartakusbund and the revolutionary groups of Hamburg and Bremen which were led by Paul Frölich, [Johann] Knief, and Karl Radek. At the end of the year of 1918 the first congress of the Communist Party of Germany was completed. The party was as yet weak; it was dominated by leftist elements. Despite the opposition of Rosa and Karl, the congress voted to oppose participation in elections or parliaments of any kind, as well as for the boycotting of the trade unions and appeals to the workers to leave them. Rosa argued, with little avail. Yet, in the program she wrote and which was adopted by the congress, the aims of the young Communist movement are clearly stated:
“The proletarian revolution is the death-bed of slavery and oppression. For this reason all capitalists, Junkers [landed nobility], members of the petty middle class, officers, and all those who live on exploitation and class hegemony, will rise against it to a man in a struggle for life and death. It is madness to believe that the capitalist class will, with good will, subordinate itself to the verdict of a socialist majority in parliament; and that it will voluntarily renounce its proprietary rights and its privileges of exploitation. Every ruling class has, to the very end, fought for its privileges with the most stubborn energy. The class of capitalist imperialists exceeds all its predecessors in undisguised cynicism, brutality, and meanness.... Against the threatening danger of the counter-revolution must come the arming of the workers and the disarming of the hitherto ruling class. The fight for socialism is the most gigantic civil war in history, and the proletarian revolution must prepare the necessary defense for this war. It must learn to use it, to fight and to conquer. This defence of the compact masses of the workers, this arming of them with the full political power for the accomplishment of the revolution, is what is known as the dictatorship of the proletariat. This, and only this, is the true democracy.”
The young party was soon to receive its baptism in blood. The social democrats were placed at the head of the so-called revolutionary government to head off the real revolution which would place power actually into the hands of the working class. Traitorous, they quaked at the idea of a proletarian revolution. Growing up by their side, like the Soviets alongside of the decaying Russian Constituent Assembly, were the Workmen’s Councils and the Communist Party. The social democrats did not hesitate to choose between revolution and suppression of revolutionary forces. A year after the founding of the Communist Party, the Workmen’s Councils were maliciously provoked by the social democratic government which removed the popular police president of Berlin, Emil Eichhorn, a member of the Independent Socialist Party. Rosa knew that the situation was not yet developed for an uprising. She realized that the masses had not yet been rallied to the support of the Communist Party; that they had not, in the words of the program she had written, gained “the consent of the clear, unanimous will of the majority of the proletarian masses of Germany and...conscious agreement with the aims and methods of the Spartakusbund.” But less clear heads prevailed and instantly the battle was on.
Together with a group of independent socialists, the Communists seized the building of the social democratic Vorwärts [newspaper] and issued a manifesto deposing the national government. Barricades were thrown up overnight. Workers armed themselves and prepared to give battle. Red Rosa did not hesitate. Marx, before her, had disapproved of the action of the revolutionaries of Paris in proclaiming the Commune [in 1870]; but as soon as the revolt was on he placed himself in line with the rebels—uncompromisingly; and after their terrible defeat he wrote the most brilliant declaration in its defense that the world has yet seen. And Rosa, in the same dilemma of being obliged to take a position in favor of an action which had been taken against her best judgment, showed the same revolutionary spirit as Karl Marx.
Unhesitatingly, the young party threw itself into the battle. With historic heroism they fought the troops of the social democrat [Gustav] Noske. With sabers and machine guns their proletarian lives were cut down to the ground. Rosa led in the battles. Liebknecht was everywhere, in the front ranks, among the youth who defended buildings that were being held by the Spartacans, in the barricades, indefatigably working among the inexperienced troops, giving encouragement and good cheer to all.
A general strike is declared; the factories stand gaunt and silent. The Berliner Tageblatt [newspaper] is taken over by the Berlin youth; the paper rolls are used for barricades, the books of the concern to bolster up the windows; a Red Cross station is established and guards are placed. On a number of churches, machine guns are lashed to command the streets. In front of the Vorwärts building a huge bonfire of the social democratic leaflets which have insulted the working class. The Bötzow brewery is held by the armed workers.
The government marshalls its forces: social democratic workers who have been poisoned against the revolutionaries. Workers against workers.
Saturday sees the end of the brave battle. The Vorwärts building is surrounded and surrendered. Whoever is caught with arms is forthwith shot. A sixteen year old fighter is called upon to shout “Long live the republic!”; he shouts instead “Long live Liebknecht!”; he is killed. The historic January days are over. They have seen heroic sacrifice and base betrayal.
A short few days pass. Liebknecht and Luxemburg are discovered. They are taken to the Eden Hotel, the headquarters of the troopers. Karl is spirited away and murdered by these “heroes.” As Rosa is leaving the hotel entrance, the trooper Runge is standing at the door. Commander Petri has given the order that she is not to reach the prison alive. The obliging Runge strikes her heavily on the head twice, so heavily that the blows are heard in the lobby of the hotel. Rosa sinks to the ground. She is lifted and thrown into the vehicle, one man on each side of her and Lieutenant Vogel in the rear. As the truck drives off, a soldier springs up from behind and delivers another sharp blow to the unconscious martyr; Lieutenant Vogel levels his revolver and shoots her in the back of the head; the frail, broken body quivers for the last time. They drive between the Landwehr Canal and the Zoological Gardens. No one is in sight. At the exit of the gardens near the canal, a group of soldiers are standing. The auto halts and the corpse is heaved into the canal at the order of Lieutenant Vogel. A few days later the watersoaked body is recovered and interred by the side of Liebknecht. The assassinated Jogiches finds his resting place by their side a short time later.
The social democratic Vorwärts has very humorous writers of jingles. On the eve of the murders they publish a little song:
“Five hundred corpses in a row,
Liebknecht, Rosa, Radek & Co.:
Are they not there also?”
The workers mourn and plan their vengeance. The murderers walk the streets today: they are free men.
* * *
It is said that were Red Rosa living today she would be among the best leaders of the iron regiments of the powerful Communist Party of Germany. Of that there can be little doubt. The attempts of renegades and unscrupulous scoundrels to darken the sacred memory of Rosa Luxemburg by spreading the tale that she opposed the Russian revolution and the Russian Bolsheviks have already been brought to nought. Rosa had many shortcomings. Perhaps only in her last days did she begin to understand that her attitude towards the question of the peasantry was incorrect. In the question of the attitude of revolutionaries towards national independence and the right of self-determination to the point of separation she also held the wrong position. She erred in certain respects in her estimation of the Russian party conflicts, and later in her understanding of the Bolshevik revolution and its tactics. She was wrong in her book “The Accumulation of Capital” and unconsciously, in fighting so vigorously for the principles of Marxism against the opportunist revisionists, herself deviated from those basic economic principles. She had too much confidence in the spontaneous action of the masses irrespective of preparatory organizational work and of the leading role of the party.
And yet she will remain a cherished, beloved memory; yet her spirit will continue to be embodied in the world’s revolutionary movement; yet her name will continue to grow in the hearts of the masses for whom she fought when those who betrayed her will have cheated oblivion only by obloquy.
The Paul Levis who seek to capitalize her errors and forget her glorious history of revolutionary struggle have best been answered by Lenin, who often took issue with Red Rosa, but who appreciated her work as few men do:
“An eagle may descend lower than a chicken, but the chicken can never rise like an eagle. Rosa Luxemburg was mistaken on the question of the independence of Poland, she was mistaken in 1903 in her estimate of the Mensheviki; she was mistaken in her theory of the accumulation of capital; she was mistaken in defending the union of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1914 along with Plekhanov, Vandervelde, Kautsky and others; she was mistaken in her prison writings in 1918 (on coming out of prison, however, at the end of 1918, she corrected a large number of these mistakes herself). But notwithstanding all her mistakes she was and remains an eagle; and not only will her memory always be highly esteemed by the Communists of all the world, but her biography and the complete collection of her writings will be useful for the instruction of many generations of Communists in all countries. As for the German social democrats after the 4th of August, 1914,—‘a foul corpse’ is the appellation which Rosa Luxemburg gave them, and with which their name will go down in the history of the international labor movement. But in the backyard of the labor movement, among the manure piles, chickens like Paul Levi, Scheidemann, Kautsky and all that fraternity, will be especially enraptured by the mistakes of the great Communist.”
Rosa Luxemburg died like the bravest soldier of the revolution at his post. She died after the defeat of a revolution, after “order” had been established. The last words she is known to have written are her best epitaph:
“Order reigns in Berlin! You senseless thugs! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. The Revolution will rise tomorrow, bristling to the heights, and will to your terror sound forth the trumpet call: ‘I was, I am, I am to be!’”
These words are the muted song of the grim regiments of the proletariat who march in the final struggle and for the final victory.