In the late afternoon sun on February 10, the Toronto New Socialists welcomed Professor David Camfield to speak on socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Slight and soft-spoken, with a ring of curly hair haloing a narrow face, Camfield teaches in the Department of Labour Studies at the University of Manitoba. He is also the author of the academic books We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society and Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement.
The audience, mostly middle-aged, sat on fold-out chairs. A man in a Democracy Now! ballcap shook hands with everyone around him, and others called greetings to one another across the room. The person who sat next to me turned and asked if I was involved in any organizing.
A hundred years after Luxemburg’s murder, I was glad to spend an afternoon discussing her life, ideas, and continued relevance today.
The event began with a land acknowledgement, then flowed into Camfield’s introduction. He briefly outlined Luxemburg’s life and her role in the German socialist movement. Rosa Luxemburg, he explained, was a leading figure in the dominant Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), until the outbreak of World War I. It may seem anachronistic, but the SPD was the greatest socialist success of the early twentieth century prior to 1917. In fact, in 1912, it captured 34.8 per cent of the vote to become the largest party in the country.
Luxemburg, who held a PhD in economics, was an influential speaker, organizer, and theorist of the booming German socialist movement. Her major economic work, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), examined the intrinsic connection between capitalism, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. She was committed to revolutionary principles, and as such led the radical wing of the SPD. She frequently clashed with the reformists, especially future party leader Eduard Bernstein, who hoped to achieve gradual changes while maintaining the existing capitalist system.
These ideological schisms deepened as war preparations began in Germany and the country tilted ever closer to outright militarism. In the German parliament, where women were not able to vote, Bernstein’s SPD voted to approve the war. Devastated, Luxemburg rightly recognized Bernstein’s and the SPD’s support for the war as an enormous betrayal of principles and left the party. In response, she helped found the Spartacus League, which was dedicated to revolutionary struggle and systemic overthrow — not Bernstein’s policy of compromise.
Luxemburg was heartbroken by the division of proletariat and the turn toward nationalism instead of the international solidarity of the working class. She protested fiercely against the war and was arrested in 1916 for her agitation. She spent the duration of the fighting in prison.
After the war ended, Luxemburg continued to work with the Spartacists, who grew increasingly frustrated with the stumbling Weimar government. Without her foreknowledge, some Spartacists launched a premature revolt in Berlin in 1919. Though she recognized the time was not yet right, Luxemburg took to the streets.
Leaders of the reformist SDP responded by unleashing the Freikorps, a proto-Nazi gang of thugs, to subdue the crowds. They murdered Luxemburg in the street on January 15, 1919.
Lessons for today
Our world today, Camfield reminded the audience, is markedly different than that of Luxemburg’s. As such, some aspects of her analyses are absolutely temporally bound. For one thing, capitalism today is vastly different than it was in the early 1900s. Unions and left-wing political organizations were robust and relatively powerful in early twentieth century Germany, unlike today, where the contemporary power of unions has been drastically co-opted by bureaucratization and far-left political parties are relatively sterile. Nevertheless, posited Camfield, Luxemburg’s writings and theories still contain some relevance for the twenty-first century.
He narrowed this into five main points.
First, he said, Luxemburg’s theory that capitalism leads to complete social breakdown — with a final stage of intense regression and destruction — is clearer than ever: our world is literally melting from climate change, as driven by corporations.
Second, an advanced society with cooperative production is entirely possible and compatible with democratic principles.
Third, leftists must also remember that the start of a new order requires a social revolution — not gradual change. Real change cannot happen under capitalism, he reminded listeners, and reform will always be handicapped by the system that created it.
Fourth, this social revolution must be precipitated by a massive process of self-emancipation: in other words, the revolution must be led from below, not above.
Finally, Luxemburg’s commitment to internationalism rings particularly true today, when ultranationalism is rising and countries close their borders to migrants.
Rosa Luxemburg shouldn’t be deified, but neither can we afford to forget her.
Editor’s Note (February 26): This article has been updated to clarify the contents of Camfield’s statements and the breadth of his academic work.