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

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.

If you distil the essence of Luxemburg’s thought, it is the belief that the working class has, or can acquire through practice, the capacity to destroy capitalism. And that in a period of wars and crises, it will be impelled towards power not simply by economic necessity, or its own rising consciousness, but by the threat of destruction. The purpose of Marxists is to aid the learning process — above all by being there, wherever the workers are.

Look closely at her scowl, as she stands alongside Bebel and Mehring in the famous picture of the SPD Party School in 1907: that’s the scowl of a comrade who’s been on hunger strike in a foreign jail. She understands the power of “learning by doing”.

Mass strikes, she belived, would provide the working class with a crash course on how to run society: the first stages of a revolution were important precisely as the schoolroom in which the working class could learn to participate and uphold new, active forms of democracy.

Looking back, it is clear why the left in the 1960s needed to rediscover Luxemburg: in order to disagree with her. The traumatic process of waking from the stupor of the post-war boom, breaking from Moscow over the Hungarian and Czech invasions, made the left yearn for something solid to anchor their project to. If it could not be Stalinism it had to be Leninism, and that meant a whole new generation of neo-Jacobins got to work on critiquing Luxemburg’s 1918 masterpiece on the Russian Revolution all over again.

But in an ironic twist of history, the workers themselves were, without knowing it, Luxemburgists. They believed in their own spontaneity. They understood that every strike was a political journey, and that (just as when you took a long car journey in your shiny new Ford Capri) you would learn something along the way.

Almost the first political event in my life was seeing the words “Tories Out!” painted on a wall, around 1972–3. I asked my father what it meant. He said: “The miners will go on strike and bring down the Tory government and we [the lorry drivers] will join in.” Within months it had come to pass. Nobody was surpised by it, nor thought it strange that, in the process, large numbers of Labour-voting workers began to read revolutionary newspapers.

On the picket lines, and in the occupied factories, and on giant demonstrations of factory workers, printers and miners I repeatedly encountered a class that did not fit either the theories of Lenin or Bernstein. In defiance of Bernsteinism they consistently expressed the desire for something more than reform; in defiance of Bolshevism, they steadfastly refused to join the left organisations, showed no interest in insurrectionary violence and their internationalism was sentimental rather than real.

What they wanted, and this is what Luxemburg came closest among pre-war social democrats to understanding, was control. Not formal control, as in the Italian experiment of the biennio rosso, but de facto control.

I remember visiting Gardner’s, an occupied engineering factory near Manchester in 1980. I had under my arm a Trotskyist monthly newspaper telling people to strike and occupy against Conservative austerity. The workers were producing a twice-weekly bulletin inside the factory, distributed by hand to other factories in the area, explaining how they had done exactly this.

They were showing films, hosting left-wing performance groups. What did they have to learn, or indeed want to learn, from Bolshevism? Being engineering workers, their barricade of the gate was significantly better made than anything we would have made.

Luxemburg’s insistence in her unpublished 1918 pamphlet on Russia, that a proletarian dictatorship can, and must, simultaneously be a democracy — and necessarily bear some of the formal features of bourgeois democracy — stands as a rebuke to everything that happened afterwards. Even in 1935 Trotsky was trying to convince himself she didn’t really mean it. And even in the 1980s, so were we.

In my documentary series, R is for Rosa, I had to choose and direct passages from her writings to be dramatised by a classically trained actress. It was hard for both of us. Luxemburg’s sentences are long, and her asides and parentheses are nested one inside the other, so that each speech is like a Russian doll.

It is only by discovering the irony and the humour in her words that they make sense: the in-jokes, the verbal acid attacks on the party bureaucracy, the biting sarcasm about imperialist hypocrisy. These create the essential rhythm of Luxemburg’s speaking voice, rhythm — once you have heard it — that is plainly missing from the voices of many of her Bolshevik contemporaries.

The greatest tragedy of her death is that she never got to meet — at least not in a sustained political encounter — the generation of factory obleute who would form the core of a militant workers’ group that veered between the KPD and USPD in the early 1920s, always in pursuit of democracy and control, and whose tactical wisdom proved greater than that of their leaders. They would have learned from each other, and laughed at each other’s jokes.

For the German version of this article click here.

Journalist, writer and film-maker. Former economics editor at BBC Newsnight. Author of How To Stop Fascism, published May 2021.

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