- ‘The World Holiday of the Proletariat’; Rosa Luxemburg on May Day
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- Was Rosa Luxemburg a self-hating Jew?
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On This Day: 13 January 1919: The ‘Spartacist Rising’ ends in failure… but for Rosa Luxemburg the resulting order is nothing but a ‘House of Cards’
(The ‘Vorwarts’ newspaper building after being re-taken by government forces- 11 Jan 1919 (International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam) and an anti-Spartacist flyer from the same date (Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), Berlin)
Over the weekend of 11- 12 January, government forces regained control of Berlin from the armed revolutonary forces led by the Independent Socialists, Communists and Revolutionary Shop Stewards.
(‘Berlin’s Liberation from Spartakus’ Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger, 12 Jan 1919 (DHM) and ‘Vorwarts is taken!’ leaflet from same day (DHM))
By Sunday 12 January, it was clear that the ‘rising’ (as the victorious government labelled it) had failed. Hundreds lay dead and the leaders of the demonstrations and armed revolutionaries were either imprisoned, dead or in hiding.
The leaders of the fledgling Communist Party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, refused to flee Berlin to a safer city and went underground, moving from house to house around Berlin to avoid capture by the…
View original post 1,556 more words
By Friday 10 January 1919, it had become clear to most of those involved that the demonstrations, strikes and armed struggle known as the ‘Spartacist Rising’, against the Ebert-Scheidemann was failing. The government had gained the upper hand in Berlin, the ‘Vorwarts’ building was re-taken and a front-page announced the success of the government ‘Offensive Against Spartacus’.
The ‘Freikorps’, under the command of Defence Minister Gustav Noske, were beating the armed revolutionaries back and re-taking the city. Meanwhile, the ‘Revolutionary Committee’ of the Communists, Independent Socialists and Revolutionary Shop Stewards was disintegrating. That evening, the Communist leadership announced that they were ending all joint actions with the Shop Stewards, and effectively withdrew from the struggle. On the ground though, fierce fighting between armed workers and government forces continued.
(Source: Ottokar Luban, ‘Rosa at a Loss’: http://www.workerscontrol.net/authors/ottokar-luban)
Contrary to what is widely believed, the Polish-Jewish anti-war activist was first and foremost a humanist, and both a victim and active opponent of anti-Semitism
By Rory Castle Jones
Joseph Telushkin’s article, “Black Lives Matter and Self-Hating Jews,” published on Tablet yesterday, put forth a long-held claim that Polish-Jewish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was the archetypal “self-hating Jew.” I take issue here with the characterization of Luxemburg as a self-hating Jew and dispute much of the evidence provided by Telushkin.
Read the rest of the article here.
A Response to Joseph Telushkin in Tablet magazine and Wesley Pruden in The Washington Times
by Dr Rory Castle Jones
The two articles in question, in Tablet and The Washington Times
Yesterday, a piece by Joseph Telushkin appeared in the online magazine Tablet entitled ‘Black Lives Matter and Self-Hating Jews’, followed by an opinion piece in The Washington Times by Wesley Pruden with the title ‘The endless war against the Jews’. Both put forth the long-established claim that the Polish-Jewish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was the archetypal “self-hating Jew”. The Times piece was headed by a large photograph of Luxemburg. Although both articles were about the Black Lives Matter movement and Jews who support it, I take issue here with the characterisation of Luxemburg as a self-hating Jew and dispute much of the evidence provided by Telushkin, which is then repeated by Pruden.
In Telushkin’s piece, he begins by describing Luxemburg (whose surname is unfortunately misspelt) as “one of the most famous” self-hating Jews. It is true that Luxemburg has often been labelled as such (from her opponents in the Jewish Bund in the Russian Empire onwards), but the accusation itself is utterly false. Telushkin writes:
“when approached to denounce anti-Jewish pogroms, [Luxemburg] responded with this heartwarming declaration: “Why do you come to me with your special Jewish sorrows?… I cannot find a special corner in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”
This is incorrect. The letter quoted is Luxemburg’s 16 February 1917 letter to her friend, the German-Jewish socialist and feminist Mathilde Wurm (1874-1935), written by Luxemburg in her prison cell during the First World War. Wurm had recommended that Luxemburg read the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Spinoza and had apparently written of the “special suffering of the Jews”. Luxemburg, who raised in a religious Jewish home in Warsaw which was nevertheless strongly acculturated into Polish culture and influenced by the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment), rejected the idea that Jewish suffering was any more (or less) worthy of sympathy than other human suffering. A fuller quote from her letter to Wurm is:
“Above all one must at all times live as a complete human being […] read only the good ones, not such kitsch as the “Spinoza novel” which you sent me. What do you want with this theme of the “special suffering of the Jews”? I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch […] they resound with me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”
Luxemburg was certainly not responding to a request to “denounce anti-Jewish pogroms” as Telushkin claims. Rather, she was expressing her strongly held internationalism and humanism. In reality, Luxemburg was the victim of anti-Semitic attacks throughout her life in both Poland and Germany. She campaigned against anti-Semitism consistently and the party she led, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) was in the vanguard of opposition to anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire. This has been documented by the Polish scholar Wiktor Marzec in a number of articles and in my own published articles and doctoral research.
Telushkin also claims that Luxemburg was “indifferent” to the death of her mother and quotes a letter from her father:
“An eagle soars so high he loses sight of the earth below… I shall not burden you any more with my letters.”
Telushkin presumably takes this from Elżbieta Ettinger’s 1987 biography of Luxemburg, which dramatised and rather distorted Luxemburg’s familial relations. In fact, Luxemburg was devastated by her mother’s death, as is clear from numerous letters to and from her closest family and friends. Furthermore, Luxemburg’s mother died in September 1897 and the letter from Luxemburg’s father which Telushkin quotes is from April 1900 and had nothing to do with Luxemburg’s late mother. In fact, it reflected the sadness of an elderly dying man at not being able to see his daughter in his final years. This single letter has unfortunately been misused to present a totally false picture of the relationship between Luxemburg and her father. In reality, she personally nursed him during his final illness and he was immensely proud of his daughter’s achievements. Luxemburg maintained very close relations with all of her family, some of whom remained within the official Jewish community and some of whom left it.
Telushkin is correct in saying that Lenin wrote of Luxemburg as an “eagle”. What he misses is the complexity of the political relationship and ideological differences between Luxemburg and Lenin, which have been the subject of much scholarly attention and discussion. Telushkin then moves straight on to Stalin, implying a link between Luxemburg the anti-Semitic and murderous tyrant. In fact, Stalin purged the Communist movement of ‘Luxemburgian’ ideas, dismissed her democratic socialism, and ruthlessly persecuted and murdered her family, friends and comrades.
I will leave the comments about Marx as a self-hating Jew to others.
The late Professor Robert Wistrich, the eminent scholar of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred, wrote as long ago as 1977 that Luxemburg “does not appear to have suffered from the obvious symptoms of self-hatred”. Nevertheless, the image of Luxemburg as the archetypal ‘self-hating Jew’ remains commonplace. Whatever the rights and wrongs of using this term, it is unfortunate that distortions about Rosa Luxemburg’s Jewish identity remain widespread. Rosa Luxemburg was both a victim and active opponent of anti-Semitism. Her witnessing of the terrible Warsaw pogrom of 1881 as a ten year old schoolgirl was in fact a major factor in her political awakening. Such accusations as those put forth by Telushkin and repeated by Pruden must now be challenged in the light of new research, scholarship and understanding of Luxemburg’s Jewish identity.
Dr Rory Castle Jones was awarded a PhD for his thesis ‘A Study of the Identity, Family, and Background of Rosa Luxemburg 1871-1919’ by Swansea University in 2016. He has written a number of articles on the subject, is a member of the Advisory Board of The International Rosa Luxemburg Society, and is is co-editing the fourth volume of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg.
This article is excerpted from Rosa Remix, a collection of essays on the work of Rosa Luxemburg and its relevance to contemporary political debates, forthcoming from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. RLS is hosting a New York launch event for the book on September 8.
Rozalia Luxenburg was born on March 5, 1871, in the small Polish city of Zamość, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Róża, or Rosa, was the youngest of five children and the Luxenburgs were part of Zamość’s large Jewish community. Rosa’s parents, Edward and Lina, were among the wealthier section of the population and were both well-educated. Rosa’s father was a merchant and had studied in both Warsaw and Berlin, while her mother spoke at least three languages (Yiddish, Polish, and German) and was descended from a prominent rabbinical family. The Luxenburgs spoke Polish at home and were strongly influenced by the haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment. They considered themselves to be “Poles of the Mosaic faith” and raised their children as patriotic Poles. Nevertheless, the family remained firmly part of the Jewish community and played an active role in it.
When Rosa was two years old, her family moved to Warsaw, the bustling center of Polish (and Polish-Jewish) life. She was raised in a tightly-knit, loving family with whom she maintained close relations throughout her life, especially with her siblings: Anna (a teacher), Mikołaj (a businessman who emigrated to England), Maxymilian (a businessman), and Józef (a doctor). Despite a hip ailment which left her with a permanent limp, Rosa had a happy childhood surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors. Nevertheless, she was deeply affected by the everyday injustices and inequalities in the Russian Empire under Tsar Alexander III. Tsarist Russia was an autocratic state which suppressed political, intellectual, cultural, and national freedom. After the failed 1863 Polish national rising (in which Rosa’s father participated), a vigorous policy of “Russification” was imposed on the Poles, suppressing their language, culture, and autonomy. At the same time, existing anti-Semitic policies were expanded. In 1881, Warsaw was the scene of a violent pogrom which shook the city’s Jewish population. As a Pole, a Jew, and a woman in the Russian Empire, Rosa felt keenly the restrictions, limitations, and prejudices which surrounded her.
Like many Poles of her class and generation, Rosa became involved in anti-Tsarist circles as a student. A romantic revolutionary, she once wrote in a letter to a friend that her perfect society was one which “allows one to love everybody with a clear conscience. Striving after it, defending it, I may perhaps even learn to hate.” Around the same time, she wrote an angry poem which concluded “I want all the sufferings / all the hidden, bitter tears / to burden the consciences of the affluent / [and] to pay them back for everything with terrible revenge.” From a young age, Rosa’s compassion for the poor and exploited was accompanied by a deep loathing for the rich and powerful. Both remained with her throughout her life. After graduating from school, Rosa joined a revolutionary socialist group in Warsaw which was soon repressed by the authorities. In early 1889, she joined the familiar trail of Polish revolutionaries and left her homeland for exile in Switzerland, where she joined her older brother Józef at Zurich University.
In Switzerland, Rosa studied, worked, and lived alongside her fellow east European émigrés. Soon after her arrival, she began a romantic and political relationship with Leo Jogiches, a wealthy Jewish revolutionary from Lithuania. It was at this time that she adopted a new spelling of her name—Rosa Luxemburg. She and Jogiches worked in close collaboration for the rest of their lives and co-founded a new political party, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP) in 1893. The SDKP was an internationalist Marxist group which opposed all attempts at regaining Polish independence from the three occupying powers which had partitioned Poland at the end of the eighteenth century
—Austria, Germany, and Russia. Instead, the SDKP strove for international working class solidarity and saw the future for Poland as part of a multi-national European socialist state. Rosa Luxemburg represented her party at congresses of the Socialist International, the body which brought together various socialist parties from across the globe, and she edited the party newspaper in Switzerland and Paris. In 1897, she was awarded
a doctorate in Zurich for a thesis on the industrial development of Poland, in which she set out her argument that Poland had been economically incorporated by the three occupying empires, making the struggle for independence anti-historical and doomed to failure. The following year, she arranged a marriage-of-convenience with a German émigré to obtain a German passport and moved promptly to Berlin.
Socialism, Revolution, and Mass Strike
Launching herself into the German labor movement (at that time the strongest in the world), Luxemburg soon made a name for herself as a radical and determined opponent of attempts to “revise” Marxism by socialists like Eduard Bernstein. She remained committed to the goal of socialist revolution and viewed “reformists” and “revisionists” as misguided at best and traitors to the socialist movement at worst. Writing to Leo Jogiches, Luxemburg explained that she wanted to “affect people like a clap of thunder […] not by speechifying but with the breadth of my vision, the strength of my conviction, and the power of my expression.” Collecting her ideas, Luxemburg produced a series of articles which were later published as Social Reform or Revolution? Over the next few years, Luxemburg became a leading figure on the left of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) and developed close relationships with party leaders including Karl Kautsky, August Bebel, and Clara Zetkin. At the same time, she remained the leading theorist of the Polish party which, following a merger with its Lithuanian counterpart at the turn of the
century, became the SDKPiL.
In 1905, a revolution swept across the Russian Empire, including Luxemburg’s native Poland. For her, it was the realization of a dream nurtured since youth. For most of that year, Luxemburg acted as a popularizer and proponent of the revolution in the German socialist press and called on German workers to adopt “Russian methods”—including the mass strike, as she outlined in The Mass Strike, the Party and the Trade Unions (1906). At the end of 1905, when the revolution was still raging in Russia and Poland, Luxemburg returned to her native Warsaw and spent three months participating in the revolution alongside her old comrades, including Leo Jogiches, as well as spending time with her family. Luxemburg and Jogiches were arrested by Tsarist police and imprisoned in the infamous Warsaw Citadel. As a result of her high profile status in Germany, Luxemburg was released after a few months and allowed to return to Berlin, while Jogiches was sentenced to Siberian exile.
Teacher, Journalist, and Activist
From 1906 until 1914, Rosa Luxemburg lived and worked in Berlin, where she taught at the SPD Party School, wrote for the socialist press, and produced a number of important Marxist studies. She remained a leading figure on the left-wing of the SPD, whilst at the same time remaining deeply involved in Polish affairs. In 1913, she produced arguably her most important work, The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism, a study which built on a perceived problem found in volume two of Karl Marx’s Capital. Luxemburg argued that capitalism was bound to expand into non-capitalist territories in order to survive and that once these territories were exhausted (or rather, before that moment) capitalism would be plunged into crisis and collapse. In response to criticism of her work, Luxemburg subsequently published an Anti-Critique in 1915.
During these years, Luxemburg was increasingly preoccupied with imperialism and the threat of a world war, predicting a global crisis which would offer only two roads: leading either to socialism or barbarism. She was among the authors of the “Stuttgart Resolution” at the International Socialist Congress held in that city in 1907, in which European socialist leaders promised to campaign against war and to hasten the downfall of capitalism and autocracy. In 1913, Luxemburg made a powerful speech calling on German workers to refuse to shoot their French or British brothers in the event of war. For this, she was put on trial and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Her conduct at the trial made her a heroine of the German left: when labelled a flight risk by the prosecutor she responded defiantly “Sir, I believe you, you would run away; a social democrat does not. He stands by his deeds and laughs at your judgements. And now sentence me!”
The First World War
At the outbreak of war in summer 1914, the German SPD—like its counterparts in France, Britain, and elsewhere—decided to support their national government and the war effort. For the minority of socialists who retained the pre-war position and opposed the war, it was a lonely and dispiriting time. Rosa Luxemburg fleetingly consid-ered suicide in protest against her party’s position but instead quickly began forming the tiny anti-war Gruppe Internationale (which later evolved into the Spartacus League), which gathered in her Berlin flat and attempted to issue pamphlets and messages to sympathizers. She engaged in these anti-war activities with pre-war comrades like Clara Zetkin, Franz Mehring, and Leo Jogiches, as well as the radical socialist parliamentarian Karl Liebknecht, and all of them suffered isolation, persecution, and imprisonment as a result. From February 1915 to February 1916, and again from July 1916 until the end of war, Luxemburg was incarcerated. From her cell, she followed the news, wrote letters to friends and comrades, and produced a number of works, including the anti-war Junius Pamphlet (1915) in which she proclaimed “War is methodical, organized, gigantic murder.” Still in prison in early 1917, Luxemburg welcomed the February Revolution in Russia and offered critical support to the Bolsheviks following their seizure of power that October. In August 1918, she completed The Russian Revolution, a critique of the Bolsheviks which challenged their land and nationality policies, the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, and Lenin and Trotsky’s suppression of democracy and of their opponents. In this work (which was not published until 1922), Luxemburg wrote her most famous line: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively the freedom for the one who thinks differently” and wrote prophetically:
“Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule […] a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians.”
The German Revolution
In November 1918, the German war effort collapsed and a revolution swept the country, overthrowing Kaiser Wilhelm II and leading to the declaration of a republic. Rosa Luxemburg was released from prison, like all political prisoners, and returned to Berlin immediately to set to work. During autumn 1918, she and Karl Liebknecht led the small Spartacus League as a radical faction within the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which had split from the SPD in 1917. Governmental power was handed to the Social Democrats, and under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert (a former pupil of Luxemburg’s) the Armistice was signed, ending the war after four long years of bloodshed. Ebert’s government had the support of most Germans, as well as of the army, navy, and the majority of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils which were being formed across the country. Initially, Ebert was also supported by the USPD, with only the Spartacus League opposing the government from the left. Luxemburg and her comrades called for the deepening and widening of the revolution, arguing in favour of nationalization, the arming of the workers, the removal of pre-revolutionary civil servants and military leaders, and support for Bolshevik Russia.
On New Year’s Eve, 1918, the Spartacus League finally split from the USPD and formed a new party, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), under the leadership of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Less than a week later, armed fighting broke out in Berlin. On one side stood the government of Ebert and special divisions of soldiers loyal to it (known as freikorps) and on the other side stood armed demonstrators sympathetic to various left-wing groups including the USPD, the revolutionary shop stewards, and the KPD. After several days of heavy fighting, the “Spartacist Uprising”—as it was dubbed by the government and the press—was crushed. On 15 January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested and interrogated by government forces before being brutally murdered. Luxemburg’s body was dumped in a canal, not to be recovered until six months later. Her last words, written the night before her murder, were “Order reigns in Berlin! You stupid lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. The revolution will raise itself up again clashing, and to your horror it will proclaim to the sound of trumpets: I was, I am, I shall be.” The anniversary of the murder became an annual left-wing mass demonstration, which it remains to this day.
Rosa Luxemburg was the most important theorist of both the German and Polish communist movements, despite the perversion and distortion of her ideas by Communists after her death, especially during Stalin’s reign. And yet she was so much more than this. She was a keen botanist, a lover of literature and culture (she translated Vladimir Korolenko’s autobiography in her prison cell), and a beloved sister, aunt, friend, and lover. Luxemburg’s life and thought have inspired a broad range of individuals, groups, and
movements throughout the twentieth century. and her ideas about socialism and capitalism, democracy and dictatorship, war and peace, nationalism, imperialism, and women’s rights continue to be relevant and stimulating in the 21st century. Luxemburg’s ideas have outlived the Soviet experiment in Russia and Eastern Europe and she continues to be both revered and reviled in Germany long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her writings, theories, and ideas are studied and discussed on every continent. At the time of writing the third volume of the English-language Complete Works is being prepared for publication and there are plans afoot in Beijing for a ground-breaking Chinese version. Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas—and sometimes merely the mention of her name—continue to provoke, to inspire, and to challenge “like a clap of thunder.” This is surely what she would have wished for.
Rory Castle was awarded a PhD by Swansea University for a thesis on Rosa Luxemburg (2016), is co-editing the fourth volume of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, and is editor of http://www.rosaluxemburgblog.wordpress.com
Come by the RLS NYC office on September 8 for the release of Rosa Remix. Free copies of the book will be available for all in attendance.
Below is an appeal for funds to support the Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg from the editors. Please consider supporting this very important project, which is making all of Luxemburg’s writings and letters available to English readers for the first time:
Support the ongoing effort to produce
The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg
The effort to issue The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg has reached a critical phase, and we appeal for your help in enabling future volumes to be published.
The Complete Works was inaugurated in March 2011 with the 600-page Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, the largest collection of her correspondence ever published in English. Volume I of the Complete Works, entitled Economic Writings 1, was published in 2013 and contains the first full English translation of one of her most important books, Introduction to Political Economy, as well as eight newly-discovered manuscripts on anthropology, economic history, and the theory of crises. Volume II, entitled Economic Writings 2, was published in 2015 and contains a new translation of The Accumulation of Capital and the Anti-Critique.
We are now raising funds to cover the costs of translation of her Political Writings, beginning with three volumes (Vols. 3, 4 and 5) devoted to “On Revolution.” They will contain all of her writings on the 1905-06 Russian Revolution, 1917 Russian Revolution, and 1918-19 German Revolution. These reveal Luxemburg at her finest—as a fierce supporter of revolutionary democracy, with a sensitive grasp of spontaneous freedom struggles as well as of non-hierarchical forms of organization. Many of these writings—a large number of them translated from Polish—have never appeared in print since their initial publication, and most have never before appeared in English.
The Complete Works will make her entire body of work available for the first time in any language. All of the writings will be newly translated, with the highest level of scholarly editing. But we cannot continue to commission translations without your support. We need to raise an additional $35,000 to help pay for the translation costs of the next three volumes.
We urge you to make a contribution to the Rosa Luxemburg page of the Toledo Fund, at https://toledo.nationbuilder.com/complete_works_rosa_luxemburg
There is no better way of celebrating Luxemburg’s birthday on March 5 and International Women’s Month.
—The Editorial Board, Rosa Luxemburg Complete Works