Dana Mills concludes her new short new biography, Rosa Luxemburg (Reaktion Books), with the appeal: "See that you join Rosa Luxemburg's march".
"The extraordinary force of her [Luxemburg's] legacy marches on beyond her politics… The idea of unequivocal commitment for social justice for all is returning to our streets. The shadow of the little great woman is marching on, arguing for freedom from oppression and equality in dignity for all".
Mills asks us to see Luxemburg as a model. She highlights Luxemburg's "empathy towards the victims of… violence", her "ability to remain committed to organising while being away from those she loved most", and the way she "extended her solidarity to people across the world, in countries she never even visited".
In these days when NGO politics so looms over the left, the recall to the spirit and approach of an activist from the heroic days of the Marxist movement is refreshing.
The biography isn't as happy, I think, in locating Luxemburg within that movement.
Mills follows convention in writing of Luxemburg having a "lifelong dispute with Lenin". She interprets it as the counterposition of "a consistent democratic thread in Luxemburg's work" to "Leninist centralism".
Yet Mills usefuly mentions that Luxemburg wrote her famous pamphlet on The Mass Strike, from August 1906, while recuperating from a prison spell in a big house whose location was then in Finland, now in Russia.
The house's owner, a wealthy sympathiser, had invited the Bolsheviks to use it. Lenin, Krupskaya, and Alexander Bogdanov lived there, and for a period it was the de facto Bolshevik HQ. Other Bolsheviks were there at times: Krasin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Tomsky, Stasova. The Mensheviks Martov and Axelrod lived close by. Trotsky visited. Activists constantly went to and fro between the house and nearby St Petersburg.
Krupskaya, in her memoirs, records: "The door of the house was never locked, and every night a jug of milk and a loaf of bread were left in the dining room, where a bed was made on the sofa... In the morning we would often find comrades in the dining room who had come down during the night".
That's where Luxemburg chose to go to write.
Mills recognises, as many commentators don't, that Luxemburg's personal relations with Lenin were warm, and even that in 1906-7 (and thereafter) Luxemburg was clearly (though critically) with the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks. But she gives their disagreements, of which there were many, an unreal singlemindedness and fixed high profile as against all the issues where they were kindred representatives of the radical left in the world movement of their time.
Of course the fight for democracy was a constant theme in Luxemburg's writings. It was also, and maybe even more so, in Lenin's.
As often, the picture here of Luxemburg-democrat vs Lenin-centralist is constructed by drawing a line from a soon-forgotten pro-Menshevik polemic from Luxemburg in 1904, through a draft on the Russian Revolution in 1918 (which was not published by Luxemburg, or by anyone until Paul Levi used it as cover for his going-over to the SPD in 1922, and which was implicitly disavowed by her in a letter to Warski in late 1918), then extrapolating the line to find Stalinism as the continuation of Lenin.
The construction is propped up by an account of the Russian workers' revolution of 1917 as a matter of "orders" by Lenin.
"On… 3 April 1917 Lenin stepped off the train in Finland Station, St Petersburg. He arrived to take charge of the fledgling revolution… Orders were given for the Bolsheviks to occupy the railway stations, the telephone exchange, and the state bank… Lenin abolished private ownership of land… [etc.]… The Bolsheviks dissolved the constituent assembly… It was substituted by the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Thus an elected body was replaced by an unelected one…"
The Soviets were elected! And the Bolsheviks' argument, long before the Constituent Assembly, was that the Soviets were a radically more democratic form of political representation than a parliamentary-type one. Rosa Luxemburg had the same view. In Germany in 1918-9, as Mills records, she counterposed the democracy of the workers' councils to the parliamentary-type National Assembly favoured by the conservative majority Social Democrats.
Mills writes that in 1918-9 "Rosa's attitude towards a revolution in Germany… was… far more cautious and measured than that of the Russian counterpart" (presumably meaning the Bolsheviks). That seems to rest on a picture of the Russian workers' revolution as a matter of Lenin arriving at the rail station and summarily giving "orders".
In Russia, Lenin opposed the slogan "Down with the Provisional Government" as premature. The Bolsheviks energetically sided with the Provisional Government against Kornilov's attempt to overthrow it. For months they advised caution about going onto the streets. When in early July anger among the workers in St Petersburg made it impossible to hold that line, they took the lead in the demonstrations with the declared (and in most part achieved) aim of keeping them limited to peaceful protest rather than the seizure of buildings and such. They focused consistently on winning the majority in the soviets and in the working class through debates, publications, elections. The Bolsheviks knew how to measure their tactics!
As Paul Vernadsky argues in the Introduction to the collection of Luxemburg's writings from the 1918-9 revolution which we published in 2019 (pp. 8-12), the criticisms by some historians of Luxemburg's party as grossly lacking "caution and measure" in 1918-19 are exaggerated. But that the criticisms are based on real weaknesses is undeniable. The new German Communist Party which Luxemburg led in 1918-9 lacked the training and experience for tactics as "measured" as the Bolsheviks'.
Luxemburg spent her whole adult life as a full-time political-party activist: writer, speaker, lecturer at the German Social Democracy's Party School. She was shaped by the movement at the same time as she fought to reshape the movement.
In the back-page blurb of Mills' book those facts are mutated into "a woman who was fierce in professional [sic] battles and loving in personal relationships", as if Luxemburg were, say, an academic stinging in controversies but friendly in the faculty common-room. Mills is not responsible for the blurb, but it does capture something of the tone of the book.
Mills tells us that "the final break between Rosa and the party [SPD]" came in 1910, whereas in fact Luxemburg led a large and influential faction of the SPD, the Left Radicals, until World War 1. Her isolation then was partly due to the fact, not mentioned by Mills, that many of those Left Radicals (Lensch, Haenisch, Parvus) flipped over into backing the war.
But she immediately set to organising a new faction, putting together the Spartakus League, as a group inside the SPD. She and the Spartakists did not quit the SPD, but went with the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), soft-left opponents of the war, when it was expelled from the SPD in 1916-7. The USPD is not even mentioned in Mills' book, but they stayed in it until the revolution exploded in 1918. Then Luxemburg and her comrades (Jogiches, Mehring, Liebknecht, and others) hastily assembled the Communist Party of Germany, the first response outside Russia after the Dutch Communist Party to the Bolsheviks' call for fresh Communist Parties to fight the betrayals of the old Social Democrats. Luxemburg was always fighting within the movement.
Mills recognises that much of Luxemburg's writing was linked to activism, but not, I think, how much it was linked to party-building activism and to her discussions and controversies with her party comrades.
That is why the call to "join Rosa Luxemburg's march" comes across more as a call for a personal moral stance, rather for taking part in the effort to build an organised socialist movement which was always central for Luxemburg herself.
I think Mills presents Luxemburg's views on the national question poorly, and she oddly undervalues Luxemburg's support for colonial rebellions, even calling her "racist".
The book is full of odd inaccuracies. It has Luxemburg's day job as teaching at the "Trade Union School" in Berlin. In fact it was the Party School. It has Philipp Scheidemann, a leader of the SPD in 1918-9, repeatedly as "Schneiderman".
Just one other example. Describing the sexist attitudes Luxemburg sometimes had to contend with, Mills exclaims: "Even within the German Communist Party she was dubbed 'the syphilis of the Comintern'."
The Comintern wasn't even founded until after Luxemburg's death! The quotation is footnoted. Trace that reference, and you end up with another footnote… which takes you only to hostile remarks about Luxemburg from the very non-communist Max Weber.
It looks like we have here a garbled version of a comment much later, in 1925, by an outrider in Ruth Fischer's and Arkadi Maslow's effort then to whip the Communist Party into line with an ideological campaign against the deviations of "Luxemburgism" (a term of their own construction). Luxemburgism, wrote some over-eager careerist, was "the syphilis of the labour movement". Or so Max Shachtman tells us. The episode tells us a lot about the proto-Stalinist drive against "Trotskyism and Luxemburgism" in 1924-5, but nothing about personal attitudes to Luxemburg from her party comrades in her lifetime.
For a factual account of Luxemburg's life, the rather bland 1939 biography by a former comrade of hers, Paul Frölich, or even the academic 1966 biography by Peter Nettl, are more reliable. For more about her ideas, all of the several one-volume "selected works" compilations are good, and her 1918-9 writings should certainly be read.
But this warm and sprightly book deserves a read too.
Villa Vaasa, where Rosa Luxemburg wrote The Mass Strike amidst the to-and-fro of the house being used as a makeshift Bolshevik HQ.