Luxemburg meets Lenin in Finland, 1906, from R is for Rosa, Episode 1

Luxemburg was right

Marxism is the intellectual property of the working class

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This is an English version of an article published in Der Freitag on the 150th anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg’s birth

I only finally understood Rosa Luxemburg when I put my finger on a map of pre-1914 Europe and traced her movements. Zamosc, Zurich, Berlin — and then the fateful train journey to Warsaw in 1906, which took her out of the world of social-democratic respectability into one of strikes, pogroms, bombings and a five-month spell in jail.

Despite more than forty years of engagement with Luxemburg’s thoughts and writings, until I “put her on the map” I had never properly understood how far West the Russian Empire stretched, and how close the social maelstrom of its borderlands was to the “safe” world of the Kaissereich and the International.

To cross that border voluntarily, to walk into the chaos with a fake ID, having spent your adult life as the token woman in the group photos of elderly, bearded, socialist leaders, took not just courage but belief.

And Rosa Luxemburg believed in the working class. Not just as the agent of history, but as the living source of Marxism and the test of its validity.

When I became politically active, in the mid 1970s, the left was in the process of “breaking with Luxemburg”. Tony Cliff, the leader of the Socialist Workers’ Party, had single-handedly popularised Luxemburg’s work in the early 1960s — praising her advocacy of workers’ democracy while repeating the orthodox critique of her belief in “spontaneity”.

But by the late 1970s Cliff was a born-again Leninist. I remember him lecturing halls full of workers and students about how Lenin and Trotsky were right while “Rosa” was wrong — at which point feminists at the back would shout out: “Luxemburg, Tony! Luxemburg!”

Today, at the other end of four decades, I am convinced that Luxemburg was right — about the party, spontaneity, democracy and the dynamics of capitalist crisis — or at least closer to the truth than those in the orthodox Marxist tradition could admit, and closer to anticipating the actual experience of spontaneity and consciousness that would unfold in the inter-war years.

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Paul Mason
HOW TO STOP FASCISM

Journalist, writer and film-maker. Author of How To Stop Fascism.