Monthly Archives: September 2014

Campbell/Rebels Guide To Rosa Luxembourg

NB: I am currently behind a massive firewall in a nameless Asian country whose name begins with a C. Please accept disruptions during this period of transition.


The most wonderful place in the world is not Disneyland. It’s an amazing little bookshop in London, the largest left wing bookstore on the planet, Bookmarks. They’re so successful that they have their own publishing house, which produced the wee little book that I’m reviewing. The Rebels Guides are absolutely fascinating, aimed at a broad audience rather than “ivory tower” intellectuals (which, sadly, I’m becoming). They’re short (less than a hundred pages generally), they can fit in a pocket (I used to carry my copy of The Rebel’s Guide to Trotsky wherever I went), and most importantly, they offer further research links. All of the major sources of info on a given subject are online, which means you don’t have to have access to a University library if you want further information.

Rosa Luxemburg is arguably the most important figure for radical socialists, Trotsky notwithstanding. She was a Polish Jew, short with a congenital limp. In the era in which she grew up, Poland did not exist-it was divvied up between Russia, Austria, and Germany. For Rosa, Germany was the linchpin for revolutionary change; it was industrialized, it had universal male suffrage, it had some very disgruntled workers, and it was the spiritual home of the Second International.

This was also when that filthy word, “revisionist” began to be tossed around. For reasons that escape me, the Left has always been prone to fracture, and even in the heartland of socialism, this was the case. I’ve mention Kautsky before in my review of Trotsky, and he bears mentioning again. He was the supposed “Prophet of Socialism”, and for a while Luxemburg and he were comrades. They both fought for internationalism during the prelude to the First World War; they recognized the pointlessness of workers from around the world getting together to kill themselves for their Imperialist betters, Imperialists who would sooner roll around in broken glass than set foot in the trenches. They also recognized imperialism as the end-game of capitalism; capitalist nations conquered large swathes of land for cheap resources and obedient trade partners, and there would come a point when sabres would be crossed. Anti-German sentiment was rife in Great Britain (which was also dealing with those damn Irish, but that’s another story).

Rosa Luxemburg continued to fight for internationalist solidarity of socialists, but her former comrade Kautsky did an ideological about-face and became nationalist, encouraging workers in Germany to defend the fatherland. Luxembourg was disgusted, and she grew more independent, distancing herself from Second International (Lenin and Trotsky were similarly disenchanted). She led strike waves during the Great War, a war which became more unpopular as the bodies piled up. She theorized that mass strikes, in which collective bodies of people from differing unions posed the greatest threat to autocracy –  had the potential to shut down an entire country.

1917 came, and with it came the Bolshevik Revolution and the Brest Litovsk treaty, where Russia gave away most of its European territory. While Luxembourg welcomed the revolution, and was delighted by the soviets (worker’s councils, formed independently and without outside interference), she was terrified that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would fossilize into a straightforward dictatorship, a one party oligarchy. She argued with Lenin on this point, which would later be dredged up by Stalin that Rosa was a heretic. She also became a heroine amongst Soviet dissidents.

This is due to the central facet of her philosophy: organic, mass action, which had room for argument without one side or another losing face or being shot. I believe that this is the essence of radical socialism – some degree of voluntary organization (hence the importance of soviets), that is nevertheless responsive to calls for change; a malleable structure in other words.

Luxembourg took part in the ill-fated and short lived Sparticist Rebellion in Germany, a rebellion which was put down by the social democratic government with help from the Freikorps, a paramilitary made up of disgruntled WWI veterans who would later form the Nazi Party and the SA. Luxembourg once said “Socialism and Barbarism”, and she couldn’t have been more correct. She was shot and dumped in a river by Freikorps thugs.

Her words and deeds live onward. Her book on “The Mass Strike” is pretty much a textbook for mass revolution, and she is honoured by lefties like me the world over. GET THIS BOOK. There is no reason not to buy it – it’s cheaper than dirt, it’s obviously available at Bookmarks in the UK, and baby seals will cry if you don’t read it.