Lightning-bolt clever—a socialist dream exploded
Rosa Luxemburg by John Peter Nettl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In this thoroughly documented and engaging study, Peter Nettl uses the life of Rosa Luxemburg to explain the rapid growth and ultimate failure of the Marxist revolutionaries to make a reality of their dream of an egalitarian, truly democratic society.
Thus this book is far more than a biography of a brilliant, passionate and highly energetic woman who came to a terrible end — though it is that, too, and Nettl’s account of Rosa Luxemburg’s struggles, her intense and complex love life, and above all her passionate commitment to her notion of a better world for all, is dramatically, at moments even breathlessly told. But this is also an essential piece of the much larger story of the origins of Bolshevism, Soviet Communism, and Hitler’s “National Socialism” — the antithesis of all that Rosa Luxemburg and her comrades strove for. Following her life, her voluminous writings in Polish and German, and her actual, life-risking and ultimately fatal revolutionary action allows us to enter and follow the ferocious debates involving Bernstein, Bebel, Kautsky and many others whose names are probably less familiar today. All men, except Rosa.
Rosa Luxemburg was born into a tight, lower-middle class Jewish family 1871 in Russian Poland. Too bright and too ambitious for the educational opportunities in her homeland, she traveled to Zurich, where she learned German well and quickly enough to win her doctorate in economics before age 23, and quickly became a leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party, the SPD — in spite of what Nettl describes as “her natural disadvantages —youth, foreign origin, sex, above all impatience and intellectual superiority.” (p. 105) In the SPD her comrades were barely, if at all, aware of her writings and other contacts in the Polish revolutionary parties, where she wrote, spoke and organized fiercely against the narrow Polish nationalism of the main revolutionary party; her view was that a movement whose main aim was seeking to reunite all three Polish territories in a single state favored only the bourgeoisie. Instead, the smaller, more militant party that she helped found believed that the revolutionary’s only national loyalty had to be to the coming society of the victory of the proletariat, in which all national distinctions of language or customs would have become irrelevant.
In German and Austrian circles, she was known mainly as the principal opponent of “revisionism” — the thesis, first expressed by Eduard Bernstein, that the path to socialism would come not through sudden and violent revolution, but rather by the progressive and continuing reforms of the sort already being achieved by the large and powerful German trade unions. This debate became the most divisive in the SPD in the years up to the outbreak of the great war in 1914.
As an advocate of direct proletarian action without the direction of any non-proletarian vanguard, Rosa enthusiastically supported the 1905 Russian revolution, arguing that that was the model to follow. In Russia and in meetings in Zurich and later, she developed a close working and personal and political relationship with Vladimir Lenin — which, however, did not endure after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 with its “vanguard party.” Rosa’s view was that Bolshevik strategies of “democratic centralism” were not going to work in the far more industrialized, proletarianized society of Germany. Though she and Vladimir Ilyich later became polemical antagonists, each continued to maintain great respect for the other’s quick and comprehensive intelligence.
At the outbreak of the war, almost all of the SPD deputies in the Reichstag broke with their long-standing commitment to world peace and international brotherhood and voted in favor of the Kaiser’s appeal for war funds. At this point, Rosa Luxemburg, together with Karl Liebknecht, one of only two who had voted against the war funds, along with other SPD radicals created a new revolutionary organization at the margins of the SPD, which eventually took the name of “Spartakusbund” — the Spartacus League.
In 1919, in the midst of the German disaster after the war, the Spartakusbund was the most prominent organization stirring revolutionary workers in factories and neighborhoods across Germany to seize power. But the newly installed government, under the cautious and conservative SPD president Ebert, feared chaos and gave license to the so-called “Freikorps”, a self-organized militia of war veterans, to clamp down on the movement, and soon both she and Liebknecht were discovered in their safe house. The Freikorps thugs mercilessly beat her near to death before throwing her cadaver in the Landwehr Kanal; Liebknecht they killed more quickly, with a bullet through the brain.
Today, Rosa Luxemburg’s faith in the ultimate success of highly class-conscious proletariat creating a revolution by their mass action appears as a grave misreading of the real class dynamics, where the so-called working masses are divided among innumerable trades, working conditions, and local aspirations. To me, it seems that the gentle and much-loved (within the SPD) Eduard Bernstein had the better argument: focusing on the ultimate goal of an all-encompassing and pure socialist revolution is a waste of energy; much more effective will be to channel our energies into improving conditions here today, by successive reforms seeking ever to widen the freedoms already gained by trade unions and social movements at great sacrifice.
But we can’t deny that the ever brilliant, provocative Rosa Luxemburg is much more exciting to read. One of her German comrades warned the others to beware of her in debate, because she was blitzgescheit, lightningbolt-clever. And very courageous.
Judging from the bibliography, his footnootes and his many references, it appears that Nettl had read everything Rosa Luxemburg ever wrote and almost everything written about her, in all her languages plus English (Rosa herself was clearly fluent in Polish, German and Russian and knew French well enough to serve as improvised interpreter for a speech by Jean Jaurès). To our great loss, Nettl died in a plane crash the very year that this abridged version of his more extensive biography was published. Too bad that we can’t know what such a subtle, brilliant and multilingual political sociologist would have made of later developments, not just May 1968 in Paris but 1989-93 in Russia, Poland and Germany.