Promise of Social Democracy

Luxemburg and the Social Democratic Party.  Rosa Luxemburg was very critical of German social democracy because of the concessions it made to capitalism. Nevertheless she remained a Social Democrat from the date of the founding of the Polish Social Democratic Party in 1893 until a few weeks before she perished in January 1919. In brief, she remained in the party as long as she possibly could, aiming to transform it from within.

In reviewing the stormy history of Luxemburg’s participation in the Social Democratic Party, it is mistaken to project post-1918 divisions within the left backward in time, casting Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) as an enemy of social democracy or even of the Social Democratic Party.  To the contrary, the annual party congresses supported her political perspective for many years, beginning with the Dresden Congress in 1903.

That perspective was one that she developed and defended with intellectual acumen and a passionate commitment to lifting human oppression and suffering. A commitment as well to individual participation and conscience: “Freedom is always freedom of the one who thinks otherwise.”
SPD school
Luxemburg taught classes at this
SPD school, founded in 1906.

Inside and outside of the Social Democratic Party, her views did not go uncontested. Luxemburg’s advocacy of revolution was always at odds with the more sedate approach of her “Praktiker” colleagues. To be sure, hers was a love-hate relationship with the SPD.

Luxemburg: opponent of left sectarianism. It is true that Rosa Luxemburg was intolerant of the SPD’s politics of compromise, which she viewed as unprincipled and a fetter on the struggle for a fundamentally better society. But she never ceased to oppose breakaway tendencies that advocated departure from the SPD. She agreed with Bernstein that democratic forces on the left had to remain active in the mainstream political parties. For it is within these parties, she argued, that the masses of people are active and find their political representation.

Luxemburg’s Spartacus League advocated: ” a struggle for democracy inside the party, for the rights of the rank and file comrades against the leaders who have forgotten their duties ….. Our watchword is neither split nor unity, new nor old party, but the reconquest of the party from the bottom up by the rebellion of the rank and file.“ (March 1916)

Luxemburg alleged that departure from the ranks of the Social Democrats would amount to a betrayal: “However laudable and understandable the impatience and bitterness which today lead the best elements to leave the Party, flight is still flight, and is for us a betrayal of the masses.” (January 1917)


USPD women lead a march

When those Social Democrats, including Rosa Luxemburg and Eduard Bernstein, who were opposed to the war were expelled from the SPD in 1916, they formed the “Independent Social Democratic Party” (USPD). The name they chose for their new party illustrates their continuing allegiance to social democracy.

Luxemburg and Revolution. It’s true that the German revolution in 1918 shifted Luxemburg’s views, and she co-founded the German Communist Party in late December of that year. But remember that Germany was at that time in the throes of a revolution. Her actions at this extraordinary moment oughtn’t to be mistaken for her long-standing approach to social democratic party politics.

Luxemburg’s identification with Communism did not amount to an approval of the methods used during the Russian revolution to seize power. Nor did “All power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils” ever mean for her that leftists should abandon parliamentary struggle, even in the midst of revolutionary upheaval. Notwithstanding their conviction that moderate social democrats were betraying the socialist cause, Rosa Luxemburg, and her comrade Karl Liebknecht opposed the Spartacus League’s revolutionary uprising in Berlin early in 1919. They believed that this precipitous action lacked popular support and was premature. Yet they endorsed the insurrection when the League, against their advice, decided to participate in it. The effort was crushed by the newly constituted Weimar Republic, through the violent intervention of police and military forces. The paramilitary Freikorps murdered Liebknecht and Luxemburg in January 1919.

Many Social Democrats, including Eduard Bernstein, deplored the brute force, authorized by Social Democratic Party leaders, with which the uprising was beaten down. Many mourned the deaths of Liebknecht and Luxemburg.

The campaign waged against the Spartacist uprising deepened a rift within the left that had existed since the inception of social democratic politics in the 19th century. And today, suspicion and hostility continue to separate, for example, Germany’s Left Party from the SPD.

Paul Levi, Luxemburg’s attorney and close friend, became the leader of the German Communist Party following her murder in January 1919. Like Luxemburg, he believed that leftists had to involve themselves in the mainstream political parties in order to remain politically relevant. He rejected the tutelage of the Russian Communist Party and published in 1921 a manuscript by Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” that criticized Bolshevik methods. In 1922, under his leadership, many Communists rejoined the SPD.

Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy. Rosa Luxemburg’s political life is open to multiple interpretations. It’s true that she sharply criticized the Social Democratic Party to which she herself belonged. Yet she consistently favored working with the party to change it. Today social democracy is a more conservative agent than it was a century ago. But its ideals of freedom and social justice have by no means been abandoned. Social democracy retains the potential to reconcile our longing for a fundamentally better world with realistic expectations and compromises in this one.

That is to say: social democracy possibly remains the home of Rosa Luxemburg as well as Eduard Bernstein!