J.R. Johnson

Lenin, Liebknecht, Luxemburg

Three Giants of Socialism

(28 January 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 4, 28 January 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We commemorate with this article the anniversaries of three giants of the revolution who, with their contributions to the cause of socialism, carved for themselves an everlasting place in the memory and living thought of the international working class. Lenin, the great genius of revolution, the man who with Trotsky led the monumental revolution in 1917, died in January 1924 after a long illness. In January, 1919, the two titans of the German Socialism, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered by the German reactionaries who hoped thereby to decapitate the rising revolutionary movement. – Ed.

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“I also recall the words of one of the most beloved leaders of the American proletariat, Eugene Debs, who wrote toward the end of 1915, in the article, In Whose War I Will Fight ... that he, Debs, would rather be shot than vote loans for the present criminal and reactionary imperialist war; that he, Debs, knows of only one holy and from the standpoint of the proletariat legal war, namely: the war against the capitalists, the war for the liberation of mankind from wage slavery. I am not at all surprised that Wilson, the head of the American billionaires and servant of the capitalist sharks, has thrown Debs into prison. Let the bourgeoisie be brutal to the true internationalists, the true representatives of the revolutionary proletariat! The more obduracy and bestiality it displays, the nearer comes the day of the victorious proletarian revolution.” – From A Letter to the American Workers, written by Lenin and dated August 20, 1918.

Every generation judges and must judge its ancestors in the light of its own experience. Every judgment of an historical figure is a judgment of contemporary society. The youth of today, looking back at Lenin, Liebknecht and Luxemburg, is in a position to evaluate their contributions to human society and measure their stature towering higher and higher over their contemporaries.

The youth of today does not have a stable society. It has been born and bred and has lived in a society of fascism, of war, national wars, international wars and civil wars. Mass murder, concentration camps, judicial frame-ups of thousands carried out with all the apparatus and paraphernalia of government-power, ‘“liquidation” of millions who obstructed state policy, unemployment of 20 millions at a time in one country, these are the characteristics of our epoch in time of peace.

In war the youth has been compelled to participate in the organization of all the vast resources of the world for mutual self-destruction, has seen great states wiped off the map, brutality, cruelty, organized lying, organized hunger, organized attempts to destroy or to move whole populations – the youth has seen these become the common practice of the rulers of bourgeois society. Fascists and democratic states alike participate into the descent into barbarism. Stalin liquidates revolutionists; Hitler liquidates millions of Jews; the British government organizes the economy of India for war in such a manner as to liquidate six million Indians in a few months of famine. This is the degradation of modern society.

Dedicated Lives to Socialism

Lenin, Liebknecht and Luxemburg, growing to maturity in a far different age, were able to see the elements of capitalist disintegration and devote their lives to the struggle against it. Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg reached the age of 20 in 1891. Lenin was 20 in 1890. Anyone who is today 20 years of age has seen in any single year since 1933 more of capitalism’s waste of human and material resources and capitalism’s misery than Lenin and Luxemburg and Liebknecht saw in the whole of their first 20 years.

“Militarism is not only a means of defense against the external enemy; it has a second task, which comes more and more to the fore as class contradictions become more marked and as proletarian class-consciousness keeps growing. Thus the outer form of militarism and its inner character takes a more definite shape: its task is to uphold the prevailing order of society, to prop up capitalism and all reaction against the struggle of the working class for freedom. Militarism manifests itself here as a mere tool in the class struggle, as a tool in the hands of the ruling class. It is destined to retard the development of class consciousness ... The task of militarism is, above all, to secure for a minority, at whatever cost, even against the enlightened will of the majority of the people, domination in the state and freedom to exploit.”Karl Liebknecht

Yet at the age of 20 they were all revolutionists, their lives dedicated to the struggle for socialism, determined never to compromise with the capitalist monster whose characteristics they saw so clearly. Today, as the youth looks back at them and then looks at the world around, it can appreciate the rightness of the instinct and the soundness of the judgment which, in their comparatively civilized epoch, led them to revolutionary socialism.

Not one of them was proletarian in origin. Karl Liebknecht was a lawyer, and his father, William Liebknecht, the friend of Marx, and a leader of the German Social-Democracy, was educated at three German universities. Lenin’s mastery of the bar examinations in Russia, passing at the head of the list in an incredibly short space of time, testifies early, even in the routine of bourgeois society, to the intellectual power which he commends. Rosa Luxemburg was a brilliant student at the Polish university which she attended. But they brought their natural gifts and their education to the working class, scorning to use them in the service of bourgeois society for material reward and bourgeois recognition. Those today (far less gifted than they) who hanker after the fleshpots of bourgeois society in all its contemporary barbarism and hopeless perspective, can measure the pettiness of their aspirations against the actions of Lenin, Liebknecht and Luxemburg when they grew to maturity and made their choice.

But did they, in embracing the proletarian cause, condemn themselves to narrow lives of pure misery, privation, obscurity and suffering? How ridiculous! In finding the proletariat and the struggle for socialism they found themselves. Marxism today stands higher than ever as the climax of all the intellectual discoveries and methods of mankind. And in Marxism and the proletarian struggle of which Marxism is the ideological reflection, they made imperishable contributions to human development and lived full, rich rounded lives in which creative thought and vigorous action were both indivisible, component parts.

Their Contributions Unshaken

Today the whole world recognizes that a crisis in human society has been reached. Through all the clamor for a world organization and for the Four Freedoms, for the “century of the common man,” for economic democracy, through all the lies, hypocrisy, confusion and stupidity, the contributions of Lenin stand unshaken.

“Capitalist politicians, in whose eyes the rulers of the people and the ruling class are the nation, cannot honestly speak of the ‘right of national self-determination’ in connection with such colonial empires. To the socialist, no nation is free whose national existence is based upon the enslavement of another people, for to him colonial peoples, too, are human beings, and, as such, parts of the national state. International socialism recognized the right of free, independent nations, with equal rights. But socialism alone can create such nations, can bring self-determination of their peoples. This slogan of socialism is like all its others, not an apology for existing conditions, but a guide-post, a spur for the revolutionary, regenerative, active policy of the proletariat. So long as capitalist states exist, i.e., so long as imperialistic world policies determine and regulate the inner and outer life of a nation, there can be no ‘national self-determination,’ either, in war or in peace.”Rosa Luxemburg

Capitalism has reached the stage where the only alternatives it offers are imperialist war or a revolutionary overturn by the working class, to institute Socialism. The future of human society rests with the victory of the working class, the only consistently revolutionary class in modern society.

To lead the revolution this class needs a political party based on Marxism and composed of the best, the most enlightened, the most self- sacrificing members of the working class or intellectual adherents of socialism.

And these doctrines Lenin expounded and concretized in a combination of writing and organization which together form one of the most comprehensive, and the most inspiring, and most remarkable contributions to society ever made by any single human being.

Luxemburg for nearly thirty years was one of the leading figures of that gifted body of men and women who led the German Social Democracy and made it the greatest civilizing force of its time. Despite errors, “her luminous mind” illuminated all aspects of European socialism. In Polish organization, the Russian revolution, the Bolshevik conflict with Menshevism, political economy, the crises of French reform socialism, in the struggle against revision of Marxism, she was in the forefront. For years she fought an unrecognized fight against those who, like Kautsky, wanted to remove the revolutionary socialist content from Marxism. At the moment of the uprising of the German workers, she showed in revolutionary action the same great abilities of heart and mind which had distinguished her theoretical and organizational contributions.

Liebknecht is forever associated with the struggle against militarism. But it is characteristic of that great generation that, being opposed to dialectical materialism, i.e., the philosophic method of Marxism, in the midst of his revolutionary activities, he prepared a study of that subject for the discussion and clarification of the revolutionary movement.

Today the Germany of Liebknecht lies in ruins; the Poland of Luxemburg and the Russia of Lenin groan under a monstrous tyranny. The socialist society for which they struggled is nowhere realized. On this theme the Philistines preach their sermons. But the Hitlers and the Pilsudskis and the Becks who flourished over the defeat of socialism have disappeared. The house they built has fallen in irreparable ruin. Stalinism still stands but has shown not the slightest capacity to do anything but increase the general crisis of mankind. The ideas and ideals of Lenin, Liebknecht and Luxemburg today assume a gigantic stature owing to the very depths into which capitalist society drags mankind. Humanity will not perish. And as it fights its way to a sane social order, it must and will discover the principles, aims and methods which were so enriched by these great figures.

The New York Times of January 14, 1945, tells us that in Germany on January 13, 10,000 Berliners filed through shattered streets and snowfall to honor the memory of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. They went to the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery, the site of the monument to these great revolutionaries. It was destroyed by Hitler. Where is he today? But Luxemburg and Liebknecht are beginning to regain their positions in the hearts and lives of the German people.

Last updated on 18 October 2020