M. Kidron

Rosa Luxemburg the Revolutionary

(September 1959)

From Socialist Review, 9th Year No. 12, September 1959, p. 6.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive
Thanks to Ted Crawford.

THE FATE suffered by Rosa Luxemburg’s memory in the forty years since her murder is an accurate reflection of the fate of the international socialist movement. This mighty revolutionary, probably the greatest tribune the western proletariat has produced since Marx and Engels, has laid almost undisturbed in the byways of socialist research, dimly remembered, grossly misrepresented, incapable of being accommodated within the turgid streams of social democracy and Stalinism. Even the miniscule groups of misnamed Trotskyists have found her too turbulent a spirit to commit to their gallery of deities.

The movement has yet to discover the significance of Rosa Luxemburg. When it does, it will be infinitely richer; until it does, it will be underlining its failure to measure up to its historic tasks.

Rosa Luxemburg has had her biographers. Paul Frölich’s work is a classic of sympathetic writing. But until now, no one has attempted a critical appraisal of her life and work from the point of view of Western socialists, that is, in terms of the current tasks of the developed proletarian mass movement. No one has yet appealed to Luxemburg for guidance in present-day political activity.

New men old problem

This, Tony Cliff has now done in his critique of Rosa Luxemburg, published as nos. 2 and 3 of International Socialism. His method is to fasten on to the major problems facing the West European labour movement at the turn of last century by describing their formulation in Rosa Luxemburg’s work, and then to present her conclusions and solutions in a spirit of criticism and objective evaluation. This is creative writing. The reader sees the subject in historical perspective. Her magnificent achievements placed in context, her equally magnificent mistakes sharply exposed.

Sometimes the logic of ideas leads the author to ignore, his subject, completely imputing to her a train of thought more his merely serve to underline the major lesson of the book: that there is an amazingly strong similarity between the problems that faced our grandfathers and those confronting us; that the searing revolutionary energy and clairvoyance that enabled Rosa Luxemburg to cleave to the very heart of their solution have made her the greatest teacher of our time, a never-ending source of inspiration to the isolated revolutionary socialist minorities of today.

Where we have a Strachey, Luxemburg’s generation had a Bernstein. Both ex-Marxists, both projecting a brief capitalist prosperity into the limitless future; both ascribing a regulatory, “democratic” role to trade unions which, in the long run, is bound to transmute the system gently, ever so gently, into a socialist one; both, in a word, providing the intellectual fodder for reformism and class collaboration.

Luxemburg declared relentless war on these prophets of weakness. She exposed the analytical pretensions of Bernstein and his followers, placed the struggle for socialism firmly on its material base in capitalism’s inescapable economic contradictions, revealed the limitations of trade unions as offensive weapons in the battle for social change, attacked parliamentary fetishism, excoriated the social-democratic politicians who accepted office in order to disorientate and destroy independent working class action. In short, she represented the revolutionary opposition, the hard lump of uncompromising proletarian power within the soft, messy porage of reformism. In her understanding of deep-rooted reformism, in the fury, subtlety and accuracy of her campaign against it, Rosa Luxemburg is unsurpassed in the history of socialist thought. In this alone, she has left a testament which we have yet to read.

But however central to her life and thought this struggle against capitulation within the ranks of the mass movement, it was only one aspect. Her understanding of the awakening of mass consciousness, gained from the experience of the mass strikes that thrust the new from out of the old century, from Russia to Belgium, is a model of sensitivity for, and harmony with, the tonalities of the mass movement. It is a specific [sic? antidote] for both the mindless militancy and the militant mindlessness so prevalent within it today.

More than anyone else she opened the eyes of socialists to the detailed impact of imperialism on backward, pre-capitalist countries. Nothing can be a better antidote to our neo-fabians’ New Colonial Essays than one page of her moving descriptions and incisive analysis.

One of her greatest contributions, long since lost within the grinding maws of social democracy and Stalinism, uncherished within the lesser bureaucracies of the movement’s sects, is her passionate defence of democracy for the working class and within it. Nothing could stem her tirades against the machine and the machine men, the lifeless multilimbed bureaucracy that grew on the movement in her day and is still there. Nothing could trim her infinite belief in working-class initiative, in consciously-conceived self-directed working class action. Her deep understanding of the role of leadership, the intricate interaction between leadership and led, indeed of the physiology of the movement, led her into battle not only against the Gaitskells of the German labour movement of her time but also against the Lenin of the early, hunted Bolsheviks. It was this deep-rooted and passionate defence of democracy that, more than anything else condemned her memory to a restless homeless life in the annals of ‘orthodox’ socialism. Orthodoxy of any sort could never be made to spell Luxemburg.

Great Marxist

Cliff has dealt fully with these and other aspects of life and work. He covers more than Luxemburg, the revolutionary fighter against reformism, imperialism and bureaucracy. He analyses her views on the national question and her criticism of the Bolsheviks in power; he shows himself an informed critic of her major intellectual contribution to the body of marxist thought, a sympathetic recorder of her life and a comrade who well understands her unique place in the movement and in history

There is little more that can be said is a short review such as this. Readers can do no better than buy Cliff’s study of Rosa Luxemburg.

Last updated on 16 February 2017