Saturday, January 7, 2017

Rosa Luxemburg by Hannah Arendt

[ a  review of J.P. Nettl’s Rosa Luxemburg, Oxford University Press, 1966]

Historically, Mr. Nettl’s greatest and most original achievement is the discovery of the Polish-Jewish “per group” and Rosa Luxemburg’s lifelong, close and carefully hidden attachment to the Polish party which sprang from it. This is indeed a highly significant and totally neglected source, not of the revolutions, but of the revolutionary spirit in the twentieth century. This milieu, which even in the twenties had lost all its public relevance, has now completely disappeared. Its nucleus consisted of assimilated Jews from middle-class families whose cultural background  was German ( Rosa Luxemburg knew Goethe and Morike by heart, and her literary taste was impeccable, far superior to that of her German friends), whose political formation was Russian, and whose moral standards in both public and private were uniquely their own. Theses Jews. An extremely small minority in the East, an even smaller percentage of assimilated Jewry in the West, stood outside all social ranks, Jewish or non-Jewish, hence had no conventional prejudices whatsoever, and had developed, in this truly splendid isolation, their own code of honor – which then attracted a number of non-Jews, among them Julian Marchlewski and Felix Dzerzhynski*, both of whom later joined the Bolsheviks. It was precisely because of this unique background that Lenin appointed Dzerzhynski as the head of the first Cheka, someone, he hoped, no power could corrupt; hadn’t he begged to be charged with the department of Children’s Education and Welfare?

Nettle rightly stresses Rosa Luxemburg’s excellent relations with her family, her parents, brothers, sister, and niece, none of whom showed the slightest inclination to socialist convictions or revolutionary activities, yet who did everything they could for her when she had to hide from the police or was in prison. The point is worth making, for it gives us a glimpse of this unique Jewish family background without which the emergence of the ethical code of the peer group would be nearly incomprehensible. The hidden equalizer of those who always treated one another as equals- and hardly anybody else – was the essentially simple experience of a childhood world in which mutual respect and unconditional trust, a universal humanity and a genuine, almost naïve contempt for social and ethnic distinctions were taken for granted. What the members of the peer group had in common was what can only be called moral taste, which is so different from “moral principles”; the authenticity of their morality they owed to having grown up in a world that was not out of joint. This gave them their “rare self-confidence,” so unsettling to the world into which they them came, and so bitterly resented as arrogance and conceit. This milieu, and never the German Party, was a remained Rosa Luxemburg’s home. The home was moveable up to a point, and since it was predominantly Jewish it did not coincide with any ‘fatherland . . .

Rosa Luxemburg’s early triumphs in the German Party rested on a double misunderstanding. At the turn of the century the SPD was “the envy and admiration of Socialists throughout the world.” August Bebel, its “grand old man,” who from Bismarck’s foundation of the German Reich to the outbreak of the First World War “dominated its policy and spirit”, had always proclaimed, “I am and always will be the mortal enemy of existing society.” Didn’t that sound like the spirit of the Polish peer group? Couldn’t one assume from such proud defiance that the great German Party was somehow the SDKPiL  (Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania) writ large? It took Rosa Luxemburg almost a decade – until she returned from the first Russian revolution – to discover that the secret of this defiance was willful noninvolvement with the world at large and single-minded preoccupation with the growth of the Party organization. Out of this experience she developed, after 1910, her program of constant “friction:” with society without which, as she then realized, the very source of the revolutionary spirit was doomed to dry up. She did not intend to spend her life in a sect, no matter how large; her commitment to revolution was primarily a moral matter, and this meant that she remained passionately engaged in public life and civil affairs, in the destinies of the world. This was one of the main points of her famous Juniusbroschure**, written in prison during the war and then used as a platform for the Spartakusbund. Lenin, who was unaware of its authorship, immediately declared that to proclaim “the program of a republic the means in practice to proclaim the revolution with an incorrect revolutionary program.”

 Well, a year later the Russian Revolution broke out without any ‘program’ whatsoever, and its first achievement was the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic, and the same was o happen in Germany and Austria. Which, of course, has never prevented the Russian, Polish or German comrades from violently disagreeing with her on this point. It is indeed the republican question rather than the national one which separated her most decisively from all the others. Here she was completely alone, as she was alone, though less obviously so, in her stress on the absolute necessity of not only individual but public freedom under all circumstances.

After the first Russian revolution in 1905, for which she had hurried back to Warsaw with false papers, she could no longer deceive herself. To her, these months constituted not only a crucial experience, they were also “the happiest of my life.” Upon return, she tried to discuss the events with her friends in the German Party. She learned quickly that “the word ‘revolution’  had only to come into contact with a real revolutionary situation to break down” into meaningless syllables. The German Socialists were convinced that such things could only happen in distant barbarian lands. This was the first sock, from, which she never recovered. The second came in 1914 and brought her near to suicide.

Naturally, her first contact with a real revolution taught her more and better things than disillusion and the fine arts of disdain and mistrust. Out of it came her insight into the nature of political action, which Mr. Nettl rightly calls her most important contribution to political theory. The main point is that she had learned from the revolutionary workers’; councils (the latter soviets) that “good organization of revolutionary action can and must be learned in the revolution itself, as one can only learn by swimming in the water,” that revolutions are “made” by nobody but break out “spontaneously,” and that “the pressure for action” always comes “from below.” A revolution is “great and strong as long as the Social Democrats [at the time still the only revolutionary party] don’t smash it up.

There were, however, two aspects of the 1905 prelude which entirely escaped her. There was, after all, the surprising fact that the revolution had broken out not only in a non-industrialized, backward country, but in a territory where no strong socialist movement with mass support existed at all. And there was, second, the equally undeniable fact that the revolution had been the consequence of the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. These were two facts Lenin never forgot and from which he drew two conclusions. First, one did not need a large organization; a small, tightly organized group with a leader who knew what he wanted was enough to pick up over once the authority of the old regime had been swept away. Large revolutionary organizations were only a nuisance. And, second, since revolutions were not “made” but were the result of circumstances and events beyond anybody’s power, wars were welcome.

The second point was the source of her disagreements with Lenin during the First World War; the first; the first of her criticisms of Lenin’s tactics in the Russian Revolution of 1918. For she refused categorically, from  beginning  to end, to see in war anything but the most terrible disaster, no matter what its eventual outcome; the price in human lives, especially proletarian lives, was too high in any event. Moreover, it would have gone against her grain to look upon the revolution as the profiteer of war and massacre – something which didn’t bother Lenin in the least. And with respect to the issue of organization, she did not believe in a victory in which the people at large had no part and no voice; so little, indeed, did she believe in holding power at any price that she “was far more afraid of a deformed revolution than an unsuccessful one” – this was, in fact, “the major difference between her” and the Bolsheviks.

And haven’t events proved her right? Isn’t the history of the Soviet Union one long demonstration of the frightful dangers of “deformed revolutions”? Hasn’t the ‘moral collapse” which she foresaw – without, of course, foreseeing the open criminality of Lenin’s successor – done more harm to the cause of revolution as she understood it than “any and every political defeat . . . in an honest struggle against superior forces and in the teeth of the historical situation” could possibly have done? Wasn’t it true that Lenin was “completely mistaken” in the means he employed, that the only way to salvation was the “school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion,” and that terror “demoralized” everybody and destroyed everything?

She did not live long enough to see how right she had been and to watch the terrible and terribly swift moral deterioration of the Communist parties, the direct offspring of the Russian Revolution, throughout the world. Nor for that matter did Lenin, who despite all his mistakes still had more in common with the original peer group than with anybody that came after him. This became manifest when Paul Levi, the successor of Leo Jogiches in the leadership of the Spartakusbund, three years after Rosa Luxemburg’s death, published her remarks on the Russian Revolution just quoted, which she had written in 1918 “only for you” – that is, without intending publication. “It was a moment of great embarrassment” for both the German and Russian parties, and Lenin could have been forgiven had he answered sharply and immoderately. Instead he wrote: “We answer with . . a good old Russian fable: an eagle can sometimes fly lower than a chicken, but a chicken can never rise to the same heights as an eagle. Rosa Luxemburg . . .in spite of her mistakes . . was and is an eagle.” He went on to demand the publication of “her biography and the complete edition of her works”, unpurged of “error” and chided the German comrades for their “incredible” negligence in this duty. This was in 1922.

Three years later, Lenin’s successors had decided to “Bolshevize” the  German Communist Party and therefore ordered a “specific onslaught on Rosa Luxemburg’s whole legacy.” The task was accepted with joy by a young member named Ruth  Fischer, who had just arrived fro Vienna. She told the German comrades that Rosa Luxemburg and her influence ‘were nothing less than a syphilis bacillus.” The gutter had opened, and out of it emerged what Rosa Luxemburg would have called “another zoological species” No “agents of the bourgeoisie” and no “Socialist traitors” were needed any longer to destroy the few survivors of the peer group and to bury  in oblivion the last remnants of their spirit.


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