ROSA LUXEMBURG – REVOLUTIONARY ACTIVIST – ICON OF SOCIAL DEMOCRACY
Date: August 8, 2019
By Ines Schwerdtner – Translation by Loren Balhorn
January 15, 2019 – On the 100th anniversary of her murder, Rosa Luxemburg’s incredible life provides us with a model — not necessarily of what to do, but of how to do it.
Hardly any figure in the history of socialism represents such an impressive combination of sharp-minded theoretician and rhetorically explosive politician as did Rosa Luxemburg. Her almost daily newspaper articles, her speeches at party and trade union meetings, her letters and theoretical writings all show us as much.
Luxemburg also stands as an important symbol of resistance. She continued her socialist writing even from prison and briefly but brilliantly intervened in the revolutionary tumult of 1918–19, before her brutal murder by right-wing soldiers who later flocked to Nazism. Today she is celebrated for diverse reasons, from her support for revolutionary upheaval to her alleged pacifism, her love of plants and animals, and often for her insistence that freedom is always “freedom for the one who thinks differently.”
In today’s world of crisis, with mainstream social democracy collapsing and the far right on the rise, many on the left would give anything for such a passionate socialist to lead us out of our political disorientation. And there can be no doubt that Rosa Luxemburg remains an icon of socialist theory and practice.
The risk, as we mark the centenary of her death, is that overly sentimental look at the past can often prevent us from firmly grasping our future. If humanity is to have any chance of surviving the coming environmental and economic crises and the capitalist system that causes, them we have to spend less time romanticizing the past and more studying what we can actually learn from it.
A Product of Her Time
Luxemburg’s life and work speak for themselves: she wrote, read, and spoke multiple languages, finished her PhD at age twenty-six, and founded a series of socialist magazines and even parties. Her career can only be understood in the historical context of Germany’s turn-of-the-century workers’ movement, at the very pinnacle of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). She engaged in lively exchanges with other impressive intellectuals and politicians; women like Clara Zetkin were close allies.
Luxemburg came of age inside a socialist mass culture that deeply believed that the working class’s victory was on the horizon. She retained her iron faith in this future even after the disaster of 1914, when the SPD — along with the German masses — decided to serve the Fatherland in World War I, abandoning its aim of abolishing capitalism. Yet experiences like the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and later 1917 provided Luxemburg with “proof” that political transformation was still possible.
This kind of unshakable revolutionary faith is hard to imagine in the present, especially when one thinks of the rainy, uninspired demonstrations commemorating her death every January in Berlin, or compare today’s party and trade union bureaucracies with those of Luxemburg’s time. The long period of welfare-state compromise followed by neoliberal deregulation (brought forth by the social democratic parties themselves) have seemingly written the working class out of public discourse. Since 1989 at the very latest, no right-minded person can honestly share Luxemburg’s confidence that the victory of socialism is inevitable.
Instead, we have to begin anew, and reimagine a mass socialist movement rooted in our communities and workplaces — one able to challenge capitalism at every turn. This can hardly be done by imitating the Social Democracy that existed before World War I. And yet Luxemburg certainly can teach us a few things about socialist method that do apply even a century after her death.
Thinking in Contradictions
Rosa Luxemburg’s sharp analysis, conducted with an unparalleled command of Marxist theory, remains both unique and impressive. Yet precisely because any attempt to copy her or the time in which she lived can only result in failure, the modern left prefers to linger somewhere between well-meaning hymns of praise to a martyr and the quiet melancholy over a lost past. Sometimes (sadly), Rosa shows up as an icon on posters or shoulder bags.
This is unfortunate, as Luxemburg has more to offer than just interesting history. Her work reveals at least two decisive insights for today. Firstly, the “brutality and insanity of our present capitalist economy” remains unchanged, and continues to undermine both natural resources and human labor power — that is, the foundations of this same economy.
The need to transform production has not gone away, and has grown even worse in the face of looming environmental disaster. Yet as capitalism continues to expand into non-capitalist spaces and spheres of life, it also extends its own lifespan. That is, it will not necessarily collapse on its own. Rather, working people need to intervene politically in order to bring about a different, better society.
In Luxemburg’s eyes, this political intervention required education and learning from experience. Every protest, even those that fail, could help to create new, more successful movements. In this spirit, she served as one of the most popular instructors at the SPD’s party school, convinced of the need to equip party members with the tools to understand real-world developments themselves. In this sense, her most important legacy for future socialists is not the what of socialist theory and politics in the form of written formulas or laws, but rather the how of understanding and transforming society.
Especially in an age when capitalist markets, transnational corporations, banks, and their crises appear to be catapulting humanity into disaster, developing a precise understanding of how these actors and systems function is essential to political strategy. For instance Luxemburg paid close attention to the connections between militarism and colonialism. If she were here today, she would tell us to study all of the statistics on Chinese industrial policy and compare them to German and US equivalents. If Luxemburg had her way, every socialist would be able to explain the relationship between the West’s military withdrawal from Syria while simultaneously strengthening its own borders against refugees.
She would have ripped to shreds hollow slogans like “Trumpism” or “populism,” which are used to classify different governments as “good” or “bad” but are largely useless for understanding the ways in which these regimes actually function. She would have countered rhetoric about a “post-political age” by precisely reconstructing the interconnections between economic interests, the development of the productive forces, crises, and ruptures and showing what forms of government emerge from them.
At the same time, she was a sharp critic of her own organizations: the parties of the working class and the trade unions. By and large she accused them of responding too rigidly and bureaucratically to the challenges — and the political earthquakes — of her time. Today, the Left’s distance to protest — let alone political violence — is much deeper. The battles we wage are almost exclusively defensive in nature.
Luxemburg, who after the Russian Revolution of 1905 wrote a sober yet militant pamphlet on The Mass Strike, moved in a different manner. Learning from the events in Russia, she concluded that it is impossible either to will a strike into existence or to stop one. In this she opposed both sides in the German debate of the time, which adhered to an anarchist understanding of the mass strike as a merely technical affair, only as a means to employ. She was more interested in discovering the objective sources of the mass strikes and using the potential they offered to achieve political goals.
Thinking about her insight today, we can immediately relate it to the gilets jaunes movement in France. These protests by the lower-middle classes from the provinces have shaken French society. The fact that they are not (yet) represented by trade unions and other political organizations poses important questions of socialist politics: how these organizations can support these protests and use them to win far-reaching transformations.
In today’s situation, Luxemburg would oppose the social compromises and “treading softly” of the trade unions and call on them to get to work. Though the spontaneity of the masses was always very important in her eyes, it was nothing if not paired with the years of previous “underground work” by the workers’ organization, such that it would ultimately be able to take power. You can’t have one without the other.
It is this thinking in contradictions that defines the How of Luxemburg’s revolutionary politics. That leadership and spontaneity are not mutually exclusive but rather conditional is a core element of her thinking. The same was true of her support for reforms leading to real improvements to the living conditions of working people, while simultaneously remaining focused on the long-term goal of a democratic socialism — a balancing act Rosa described as “revolutionary Realpolitik”.
Like many elements of the Marxist canon, this formulation has been reduced to an empty phrase in left-wing politics and thereby stands in stark contrast to Luxemburg’s own, much more lively thought. She was less preoccupied with the formulation itself, but rather actual practice — particularly the practice of those capable of understanding and exploiting capitalism’s moments of crisis. She feared that the everyday work of serving in government would obscure the goal of taking real political power. The Left remained too tied to an ultimately apolitical logic of practical necessity.
Yet even now, in our seemingly defeated, post-political age, things have begun to stir: technocratic styles of governance have exhausted themselves. The political right also profits from this exhaustion, putting heroic myths back into the political sphere in the form of authoritarian power — usually in the hands of powerful men. Even Francis Fukuyama, who once declared “the end of history,” says he wishes socialism would come back.
And indeed, democratic socialists are taking the political stage in many countries. The fact that a new generation is rediscovering socialism together with older, previously marginalized leftists is not a matter of coincidence nor luck, but a result of previous waves of political protest. But the “underground work” and training up of new left-wing heroes remains, for the most part, in its infancy. What could give us strength is, as with Luxemburg, a lively and worldly language that connects the everyday consciousness of the masses with the visionary idea of another way of producing and living.
Luxemburg’s analysis and her humanist pathos are pathbreaking, as is her understanding of political education and organization. For the coming crisis of our age we need not one, but many Rosa Luxemburg’s — women and men, young and old, black and white, and in every corner of the world. The struggle for socialism that her generation waged and ultimately lost remains as current as ever. If our generation fails to pick up the baton, humanity may not get another chance.
ROSA LUXEMBURG VIDEO: https://www.rosalux.de/en/publications/mediacenter/detailseite-en/media/element/1079/
GENDER & THE EU CRISES FOR WOMEN – ECONOMIC CRISIS, AUSTERITY, CARE CRISIS +
By Alex Wischnewski who was until recently a research fellow for feminist politics in Die Linke’s federal parliamentary grouping, and now works at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung on global feminist topics.
The financial crisis broke out ten years ago and rapidly spread across the globe, morphing into a fully-fledged economic crisis. Today, in Europe, it has given rise to another situation, which can best be described as a crisis of care. Austerity, administered as universal remedy to EU states, particularly affects the infrastructure required to care for ourselves and others: healthcare, nursing, education and childcare.
Women are hit by austerity in a two- or even three-fold manner. Not only do women constitute the overwhelming majority of the workforce in these areas, but they also bear the brunt of compensating for the retreating welfare state in the family context. In some countries, these developments have coincided with an increasing return to traditional family models and the far-reaching restriction of abortion rights.
The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, in close collaboration with Die Linke’s parliamentary working group on women’s issues, has hence produced studies on the impact of austerity on women’s living conditions in both eastern and western Europe – https://www.rosalux.de/en/news/id/38912/when-the-belt-cant-get-any-tighter/. Their findings are rather depressing. On the one hand, they demonstrate the similarity of the disastrous developments in many countries. However, they also underscore the fact that the dire situation faced by many women is the result of political decisions. These decisions can and must be countered by appropriate alternative policies. Indeed, in some cases, progress is already being made on this front.
National governments reacted to the financial/economic crisis in various ways. The main difference between their responses was the severity of their crisis management, which depended on the varying impact of the crisis. Nonetheless, another factor was the extent to which austerity measures had already been in place beforehand. Ireland, Spain and Greece reacted to the economic slump with severe cuts, as dictated by the Troika (a body composed of the IMF, ECB and EU Commission, and lacking democratic legitimacy). However, in post-socialist countries, some of these measures had already been part of “hidden austerity” (Poland: 11), dating back to the transformation period of the 1990s. These measures were simply continued. In Germany, too, the long-term reorganization of the welfare state and labour market brought the country through the crisis without any greater perturbations. Being the hegemonic power in Europe, Germany saw its role in extending this approach to other countries and codifying it through the European Fiscal Compact. This led to the state of “permanent austerity” (Ireland: 12) we currently see across Europe.
A central element here are widespread cuts in the female-dominated public sector—in administration as well as the education, healthcare and nursing sectors. At the beginning of the crisis, around 40 percent of working women in Greece were employed in the public sector. In Ireland, women constituted some 80 percent of employees in healthcare and 85 percent in education. In Ukraine, 76 percent of all civil servants were women. Women were particularly affected by cuts leading to layoffs or the intensification of work after hiring freezes, which was moreover combined with falling wages and an increase in working hours. Investment in public infrastructure was ceased, funding was withdrawn and many institutions, especially hospitals and childcare facilities, were either privatised or closed down, a process which had already begun in Germany in the early 2000s. Again, women were disproportionately affected. Not only did they constitute the bulk of paid care professionals, but they also had to absorb the lack of public services available to their own families.
Over the same period, many countries implemented cuts in social services intended for families. In Ireland, child benefits were reduced by up to one third, while the costs for childcare remained the second highest of all OECD countries. Essentially the same occurred in Lithuania and Ukraine. Spanish mothers lost their entitlement to a one-time “baby cheque” worth 25,000 euro and traditionally paid out after the birth of a child. Of course, this primarily affected single mothers without family members to support them and provide unpaid care work. Indeed, in Ukraine single mothers suffered specific cuts. Following the introduction of extremely strict means-testing, a third of all single-parent households lost their entitlement to support. The disastrous effects of such measures are illustrated in Ireland. Today, not only do single mothers comprise 30 percent of public housing tenants and recipients of rent supplements, but they are also disproportionately at risk of homelessness—a new, alarming development.
A Woman’s Place—Back In the Kitchen?
In some countries, family provisions have even been expanded to promote only the traditional family model (father, mother, children). Particularly in Poland, but also in Croatia, this followed a decades-old ideology of “family mainstreaming”. The commodification of care work is accompanied by the diversion of state funds to families, which now replace the public institutions that formerly provided care or childcare. In the process, the Polish government increased its maternity allowance and introduced an additional monthly payment for every second and subsequent child, independent of the parents’ income. In Croatia, too, the parental allowance was substantially increased over recent years, while public infrastructure, including care for the elderly, fell prey to the cuts. Without adequate public services, this pronatalist policy in the interest of national economic development amounts to an individualization of care work. It is a development that can also be observed in other European countries.
In some countries, the relocation of care tasks back within the family is framed ideologically by a public discourse of traditional values promoted by conservative and religious actors. In Croatia, welfare cuts were accompanied by a referendum in which people approved of the constitutional definition of marriage as denoting only the bond between a man and a woman. Moreover, it is hardly a coincidence that, given this kind of social climate, some countries have seen attacks on abortion rights – for instance, Spain in 2014 and Poland in 2016. Only powerful feminist protests stopped these measures.
“Work Like a Man, Care Like a Woman”
The care crisis affects women not only in terms of paid and unpaid care work. It also indirectly affects their control over their own bodies and their general participation in economic activity, thereby impacting on their pensions, too. Drastic labour market reforms have been an important component of all austerity measures. Their main features include flexibilization and liberalization in favour of employers’ interests. All over Europe, fixed-term positions and atypical employment relations are on the rise. In Croatia, women are finding it increasingly difficult to balance family and work. Statistically speaking, care for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities represents the biggest obstacle to women’s participation in the Croatian labour market (besides taking responsibility for their own families more generally). In Spain and Germany, women constitute around 80% of wage earners in part-time employment, although they have not been as comprehensively driven out of the workforce. As Mary P. Murphy and Pauline Cullen, the authors of the study on Ireland, put it: women are required to “work like a man, care like a woman.” (Ireland: 19).
This leads to increasing precarity over the course of women’s lives, since on average they receive a lower gross hourly wage worldwide (the so-called the “gender pay gap”). Pensions continue to depend mainly on a person’s career, and old-age poverty affecting women is already a reason for great concern. However, the full impact of austerity on women’s pensions will only really be revealed in future decades.
Organizing the Resistance
At first, the economic crisis itself mainly affected industries with a primarily male workforce (car manufacturing, construction, etc.), although its political management in the form of austerity was doubtlessly to the detriment of women. Nonetheless, in many places women are not quietly accepting the role of victims. In Germany, women are striking for better working conditions and staff increases in the care sector. They are also taking to the streets, accompanied by feminist activists, to demand better labour contracts in social and educational professions. In Greece, the most determined activists in the anti-austerity movements were women. This often led to more comprehensive emancipatory processes in their communities. In Spain, it is no coincidence that the feminist movement is the principal remainder left by the formerly powerful 15M movement—and it continues to grow stronger. In Croatia, actions that explicitly emphasise the link between gender relations and social issues are on the rise.
Most other countries are yet to draw this link between feminism and social protests. For example, in Ukraine a fragmented left is confronted with a powerful right-wing public-political discourse. Leftist arguments are largely absent from a middle-class model of feminism. Ireland is similar, where the massive (and successful) campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion was hardly connected to any left-wing social struggles or campaigns. We can attribute this to cuts of up to 40 percent in state funding, which were an enormous challenge for certain women’s groups, and even more so for left-feminist actions.
Political structures dealing with women’s issues at the parliamentary level have also been weakened. In Ireland, for instance, committees that formerly worked specifically on questions of women’s rights have been subjected to the somewhat vague principle of “equality. As a result, there is no longer any committee with a mandate to address women’s equality specifically. In Spain, the Ministry for Equality has been scrapped altogether and its programmes have seen their budgets cut. In Germany, the government now provides fewer funds for women’s crisis centres. All this makes new ventures and ideas, and the regaining of lost ground, increasingly necessary.
Placing Life at the Heart of the Debate
What could a feminist alternative to the crisis of care look like? Campillo Poza proposes abandoning our focus on a type of labour participation that is incompatible with care work and hence with a good life more generally. We must separate social security from wage labour, radically reduce the working week to 20–25 hours, invest in the care sector and build an educational system where caring for one another is an essential component. In short, the task is to place security in life at the heart of the debate and to render wage labour subordinate to it. Unfortunately, the different studies discussed here also testify to difficulties in communication between feminist organizations and left-wing parties. Furthermore, the latter sometimes address feminist grievances inadequately, despite the efforts of their female membership.
Aliki Kosyfologou concludes the study on Greece by addressing this problem: “The issue of building a leftist feminist alternative to austerity is bound to radical change of the shape and the internal structure of left parties and political groups. The idea of feminization of politics, which is on many occasions wrongly interpreted in the political discourse, can provide some guidelines on: equal representation not only through technical measures such as quotas but through reinforcing a feminist political culture, adoption of a more inclusive participatory model of decision-making and political practice, and embracing diversity that does not jeopardise the people’s unity.” (Greece: 42) This applies both to national policies and on the European level—and not just because of the EU elections!