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Homage to 'Red Rosa'

Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary Socialist; Rosa Luxemburg: Life and Personality by Nirmal Ray


Homage to ‘Red Rosa’

Sumanta Banerjee

osa Luxemburg was a stormy petrel in the world communist movement. Flying high above her peers in the first decades of the 20th century, she dared to critique some of Marx’s economic theories and Lenin’s political praxis. Yet, as a communist activist and loyal member of her party (‘Spartakus’), she responded to the call of the revolution – joining her comrades in an uprising in Germany in January 1919, after having failed to convince them that they neither had the arms nor the popular support necessary for its success. Arrested by the German military (along with her comrade Karl Liebknecht) she was assassinated on January 15 that year. The closing words of the article that she wrote on the eve of her arrest were: “The Revolution will come back and announce: ‘I was, I am, I shall be’ ”.

For the present generation of mediasavvy Indians, the term “revolution” has come to be associated only with quantum leaps in technology (like “computer revolution”) or in the business of selling (“marketing revolution”). The two slim volumes under review may help restore among them the original meaning of “revolution”, as well as turn the attention of today’s political activists to some of the fundamental issues that Rosa raised and which are becoming increasingly relevant for the socialist movement in these days. Their author Nirmal Ray (an independent researcher driven by the sole urge to introduce the long forgotten heroine to Indian readers) presents a well-documented history of her

Economic & Political Weekly

june 7, 2008

Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary Socialist

by Nirmal Ray; Little Publisher, Kolkata, 2005; pp xx+263, Rs 150.

Rosa Luxemburg: Life and Personality

by Nirmal Ray; Little Publisher, Kolkata, 2007; pp xxiv+74, Rs 80.

tempe stuous political and personal life, and a lucid summary of her main theoretical arguments.

A Delphic Oracle

Dismissed as a maverick in her personal life, and tolerated as a rather uncomfortable colleague in politics by her contemporary socialist leaders, Rosa Luxemburg today may find her real soul mates among the present generation of social and political activists who are fighting for the causes that she rightly espoused a century ago. Mainly basing on her published writings, letters, biographies and various critical assessments made by both contemporaries and later scholars, Ray begins with her early involvement with the Left wing of the German Social Democratic Party, as a teacher in its central party school from 1907 to 1914. It was in the course of this that she polished her thinking on Marxism, and prepared her magnum opus The Accumulation of Capital, in which while adhering to the basic tenets of Marxism, she questioned some of Marx’s economic presuppositions which had ignored the various options open to capitalism.

With remarkable prescience, she speculated that capitalist states, to seek sources of accumulation, would increasingly grab non-capitalist regions of the globe, which also would gradually become great reserves of “third party consumers”. Equally relevant are her prophetic obser

vations about the military-industrial complex in the modern capitalist world order, where expenditure on arms and armaments was to achieve “an automatic regularity and rhythmic growth”. By becoming a pre-eminent means for the realisation of surplus value and renewal of accumulation, as Luxemburg foresaw, militarism had given a boost to capitalism in today’s global economy – a possibility that escaped Marx’s attention. But this did not detract from what she recognised as Marx’s fundamental critique of capitalism and his contribution to the theory of socialism. Thus for her, Marxism was not a Bible containing final and unalterable truths, but rather “an inexhaustible source of stimulation for further study, further scientific investi gations and further struggles for truth…”

Her debate with Lenin also reveals her steadfastness in combining admiration for the Bolshevik leader’s heroism with unsparing criticism of his policy of centralising the party’s structure. As far back as 1904, in an article entitled ‘Organisational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy’, while commenting on Lenin’s concept of the communist party, she warned: “Nothing will more surely enslave a young labour movement to an intellectual elite hungry for power than the bureaucratic strait jacket, which will immobilise the movement and turn it into an automaton manipulated by a Central Committee”. Thirteen years later, soon after the Russian Revolution, Rosa took up the threads of her arguments, alarmed by the trends displayed by the new


Bolshevik regime there. Writing from her prison cell in Germany, in a small pamphlet (which was published much later after her assassination under the title The Russian Revolution), she paid glorious tributes to Lenin and the Bolsheviks for “having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power”, but came out vehemently against their antidemocratic measures. “Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly”, she wrote, “…life dies out in every public institution…in which only the bureaucracy remains the active element”.

With astonishing foresight, she painted a graphic picture of the future Soviet state: “….only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings, where they are to applaud the speeches of the bottom then, a clique affair – a dictatorship to be sure, not however of the proletariat but only of a handful of politicians….such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalisation of public life…”

On Self-determination

The other important issue which she raised in her debate with Lenin was that of the right of self-determination of nationalities – a right that she agreed to in principle, but was not prepared to grant indiscriminately to leaders of every nationality in all historical circumstances. The post-revolutionary Bolshevik government had proclaimed that the various nationalities of the erstwhile Russian empire were free to determine their fate, “even to the point of governmental separation from Russia”.

Warning against the dangers of such purist implementation of an abstract principle, Rosa Luxemburg pointed out how (following the proclamation), “one after another, these ‘nations’ used the freshly granted freedom to ally themselves with German imperialism against the Russian Revolution”. Explaining the unforeseen outcome, she said that it was not the masses of these nationalities, but their bourgeois and petty bourgeois leaders who “perverted the national right of selfdetermination into an instrument of their counter-revolutionary class policies”. Those among today’s Indian Maoists who, from their well-meaning but misdirected passion for the right of self-determination, are eager to lend support to any and every separatist militant group in the north-east or Kashmir, should do well to remember this history, and Rosa Luxemburg’s conclusion: “ a class society each class of the nation strives to ‘determine itself’ in a different fashion”. If the Maoists have their way, given the class composition of these secessionist groups, Assam will be ruled by a gang of xenophobic petty bourgeois politicos, and Kashmir by a bunch of despotic fanatical clerics – all in the name of self-determination!

On Women’s Rights and Ecology

Nirmal Ray has highlighted two major aspects of Rosa’s writings and speeches – her views on the women’s question and on ecology – which again are of extreme relevance to the present-day social activists. She preferred to fight the patriarchal bureaucracy of her party and assert women’s rights within the socialist movement, instead of opting out and joining the separate stream of contemporary “feminist” campaigns (like the suffragist agitation), which she felt, were led by privileged middle class women who were indifferent to the more basic economic problems of the working class.

On the environmental issue, Ray quotes from a letter that she wrote to Sonja Liebknecht (wife of her comrade Karl) from prison in May 1917, which reads like a passage from modern ecological literature. Bemoaning the disappearance of song birds in Germany, she wrote: “The spread of scientific forestry, horticulture and agriculture, have cut them off from their nesting places and their food supply…I was so much distressed at the idea of the stealthy and inexorable destruction of these defenceless little creatures…”

In fact, even in the midst of her revolutionary activities, Rosa retained a fine sensitivity to nature and its beauty. I would like in this connection to draw Ray’s attention to another article of hers (not referred to in his books), where she perceptively links loss of environmental sensitivity with social disharmony. Referring to the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev’s confession that the first time he fully enjoyed the song of the lark was when he was somewhere near Berlin, Rosa comments:

Larks warble in Russia no less beautifully than in Germany… What hindered Turgenev from enjoying the beauty of nature in his own country was just that painful disharmony of social relations… from which he could not rid himself. ….Only away from Russia when thousands of depressing pictures of his homeland were left behind…could (he) give himself up to the enjoyment of nature, untroubled and wholeheartedly (Reprinted in International Socialist Review, January-February, 1969).

Working Class and Culture

I wish Ray had also touched upon Rosa’s viewpoint on the complex relationship between the working class and modern culture – a problem that faces communist intellectuals even today. Her views are contained in a seminal article that she wrote in 1903 entitled ‘Stagnation and Progress of Marxism’ (published in D Ryazanoff (ed) – Karl Marx: A Symposium, 1927), to which Ray does indeed refer, but as a footnote only (p 227 of his first book). I wonder why he bypassed the important observations that she made there on the historical handicap of the working class in creating their own culture. “In the history of earlier class struggles”, she wrote, “aspiring classes (like the Third Estate in recent days) could anticipate political dominion by establishing an intellectual dominance, inasmuch as, while they were still subjugated classes, they could set up a new science, a new art against obsolete culture of the decadent period”.

Coming to the problems of the modern proletariat, she said: “As a non-possessing class it cannot in the course of its struggle upwards spontaneously create a mental culture of its own while it remains in the framework of bourgeois society”. Till the time the proletariat is fully emancipated and is in a position to create an art of its own, Rosa suggested: “The utmost it (the proletariat) can do today is to safeguard bourgeois culture from the vandalism of the bourgeois reaction, and create the social conditions requisite for a free cultural development”. How true these words sound today, when the best of Indian culture (whether of folk, feudal or bourgeois

june 7, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


origins) needs to be defended by the political parties of the proletariat from the vandalism of feudal/bourgeois reaction of the Sangh parivar.

When dealing with Rosa’s personal life, Ray has given us a very sympathetic appraisal of her relationships – passionate and sad, tender and polemical – with friends and lovers (including Leo Jogiches with whom she shared the best part of her life). To illustrate his books, Ray has meticulously gathered together copies of old photographs (including a rare self-portrait done by Rosa in 1909). Sad to say, their reproduction in these books is of a rather poor quality. When publishing his second volume on Rosa Luxemburg (as announced in the dusk jackets of the present books), while trying for better quality of printing and editing, Ray may also think of updating the information about the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg by consulting the latest archival records. After the capture of Berlin by the Red Army in 1945, a participant in her murder was arrested and interrogated. Known as Otto Runge, he gave a blow-by-blow account of her killing, which has been reproduced in the Delhibased magazine Revolutionary Democracy, April, 1999.

Finicky academics may quibble over Ray’s summary of Rosa’s complex economic theories, and be put off by the rather shoddy production of the two books (understandably, due to the paucity of resources of the publishers – as evident from the name that they have chosen!). But despite these flaws, one should congratulate both the author and the publishers on making accessible to the common readers the life story of an extraordinary Marxist theoretician and activist, who had been largely ignored till now in India by both the intellectuals of the communist parties, and the dons of the universities.


Economic & Political Weekly

june 7, 2008

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