Red Rosa now has vanished too.
Where she lies is hid from view.
She told the poor what life is about
And so the rich have rubbed her out.
—Bertolt Brecht, 1919
“You know, I hope nevertheless to die at my post, in a street-battle or in a hard-labour prison”, wrote Rosa Luxemburg to a comrade in 1917. This was not rhetorical flourish or hyperbole: Luxemburg gave everything she had to the fight for socialism. Including, in the end, her life.
The crushing of the Spartacist uprising in January 1919, and Luxemburg’s subsequent murder, demonstrate the lengths to which reformists will go to prevent workers taking power. The brutal role played by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which ultimately ordered and carried out her killing, highlights what Luxemburg argued in her 1899 pamphlet, Reform or Revolution: that reformism is not a “more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal”, but a movement with a “different goal” altogether.
During the January uprising, Luxemburg spent her days in heated discussions on the streets and writing articles for the Spartacus League newspaper, Die Rote Fahne, arguing the way forward for the rebellion of revolutionary workers, soldiers and sailors.
Luxemburg identified that, despite growing discontent with the Ebert government, the rebellion was premature and was deliberately provoked by the leaders of the counter-revolution. She argued that the struggle, in this moment, could only be defensive until they had greater support in the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, particularly outside of Berlin. Nevertheless, she stood by the rebellion until her last breath, refusing to negotiate peace with the treacherous SPD, which was trying to wind up the revolution and convince workers to settle for German capitalism only without a kaiser.
In late 1918, the SPD attempted to consolidate their rule by leading a campaign for Spartacus blood in their newspaper, Vorwӓrts. Networks of spies and agents funded directly and indirectly by the SPD attempted assassinations of revolutionary leaders. The Anti-Bolshevik League followed suit. This far-right organisation, funded by industrialists and bankers loyal to the old order, put a bounty of 10,000 marks on Karl Radek, a founding member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). By January, the bourgeoisie’s frenzied crusade for blood had reached fever pitch.
When Die Rote Fahne headquarters were attacked on 8 January, Luxemburg’s comrades eventually convinced her to take her own safety seriously. She spent the next week moving between friends’ houses in a futile effort to avoid arrest. Spies and informants followed her wherever she went.
In the late evening of 15 January, Rosa Luxemburg, along with her comrades Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Piek, was arrested on the orders of Noske, Ebert’s minister of defence. They were taken to the Eden Hotel, where they were beaten and interrogated. Rosa was then put in a car, ostensibly to be taken to a prison. She endured more barbaric treatment until finally she was shot and thrown into the Landwehr Canal. Her body was not recovered for weeks. This was the beginning of a campaign of white terror led by Noske to stamp out any hope of further revolution.
Much of Luxemburg’s body of work consists of pamphlets and polemics denouncing reformism. The events of January 1919 are a sober and poignant reminder of the unbridgeable gulf between revolutionary and reformist politics. Reformists are committed to making peace with capitalism. In times of revolutionary upheavals, this means using violence against the revolutionary masses.
The tragedy of Luxemburg’s death is not just that the world lost a committed fighter for human liberation, but also the timing of the loss. The revolutionary left in Germany was only beginning to crystalise into an independent revolutionary force after spending decades tied to the SPD. Rather than being a cautionary tale about why we should never make a revolution, Luxemburg’s death is a lesson in the need to be organised well in advance if we are going to be able to fight effectively the violent repression of forces intent on stymying revolutionary uprisings.
Luxemburg was a revolutionary capable of sober analysis and adapting as circumstances developed. She proved that being realistic did not mean compromising your vision for human liberation. Her determination to grasp things as they were, and see what they ought to be, was a vital skill that the German left sorely needed in those pivotal days of 1919, as well as, tragically, in the years that followed.
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