Chris Hedges gave this talk on revolutionary
socialist Rosa Luxemburg on Friday at the Left
Forum in New York City.
On the night
of Jan. 15, 1919, a group of the Freikorps—hastily
formed militias made up mostly of right-wing
veterans of World War I—escorted
Rosa Luxemburg, a petite, 50-year-old with a
slight limp, to the Eden Hotel in Berlin, the
headquarters of the Guards Cavalry Rifle Division.
Frau Rosa Luxemburg?” Capt. Waldemar Pabst asked
when she arrived at his office upstairs.
for yourself,” she answered.
to the photograph, you must be,” he said.
“If you say
so,” she said softly.
her she would be taken to Moabit Prison. On the way
out of the hotel, a waiting crowd, which had shouted
insults like “whore” as she was brought in under
arrest, whistled and spat. A soldier, Otto Runge,
allegedly paid 50 marks to be the first to hit her.
Shouting, “She’s not getting out alive,” he slammed
the butt of his rifle into the back of her head.
Luxemburg collapsed. Blood poured from her nose and
mouth. Runge struck a second time. Someone said,
“That’s enough.” Soldiers dragged Luxemburg to a
waiting car. One of her shoes was left behind. A
soldier hit her again. As the car sped away, Lt.
Kurt Vogel fired his pistol into her head. The
soldiers tossed Luxemburg’s corpse into the Landwehr
Leibknecht, who had coaxed a reluctant Luxemburg
into an uprising she knew was almost certainly
doomed, had been executed a few moments before. The
Spartacus Revolt was crushed. It was the birth
of German fascism.
killers, like the police who murder unarmed people
of color in the streets of American cities, were
tried in a court—in this case, a military court—that
issued tepid reprimands. The state had no intention
of punishing the assassins. They had done what the
Social Democratic Party of Germany created the
Freikorps, which became the antecedent to the Nazi
Party. It ordered the militias and the military to
crush resistance when it felt threatened from the
left. Luxemburg’s murder illustrated the ultimate
loyalties of liberal elites in a capitalist society:
When threatened from the left, when the face of
socialism showed itself in the streets, elites
would—and will—make alliances with the most
retrograde elements of society, including fascists,
to crush the aspirations of the working class.
which Luxemburg called by its more appropriate
name—“opportunism”—is an integral component of
capitalism. When the citizens grow restive, it will
soften and decry capitalism’s excesses. But
capitalism, Luxemburg argued, is an enemy that can
never be appeased. Liberal reforms are used to
stymie resistance and then later, when things grow
quiet, are revoked on the inevitable road to
capitalist slavery. The last century of labor
struggles in the United States provides a case study
for proof of Luxemburg’s observation.
political, cultural and judicial system in a
capitalist state is centered around the protection
of property rights. And, as
Adam Smith pointed out, when civil government
“is instituted for the security of property, [it] is
in reality instituted for the defense of the rich
against the poor, or of those who have some property
against those who have none at all.” The capitalist
system is gamed from the start. And this makes
Luxemburg extremely relevant as corporate capital,
now freed from all constraints, reconfigures our
global economy, including the United States’, into a
ruthless form of neofeudalism.
slavery and employment are not determined by law but
by the imperatives of the market. The market forces
workers to fall to their knees before the dictates
of global profit. This imperative can never be
corrected by legal or legislative reform.
in this late stage of capitalism, has been replaced
with a system of legalized bribery. All branches of
government, including the courts, along with the
systems of entertainment and news, are wholly owned
subsidiaries of the corporate state. Electoral
politics are elaborate puppet shows. Wall Street and
the militarists, whether Trump or Clinton, win.
accumulation requires for its movement to be
surrounded by non-capitalist areas,” Luxemburg
wrote. And capitalism “can continue only so long as
it is provided with such a milieu.”
searches the globe to exploit cheap, unorganized
labor and pillages natural resources. It buys off or
overthrows local elites. It blocks the ability of
the developing world to become self-sufficient.
workers in the industrialized world, stripped of
well-paying jobs, benefits and legal protections,
are pushed into debt peonage, forced to borrow to
survive, which further enriches global speculators.
built on credit, Luxemburg foresaw, transforms a
regular series of small economic crises into an
irregular series of large economic crises—hence two
major financial dislocations to the U.S. economy in
the early part of the 21st century—the dot-com
collapse of 2000 and the global meltdown of 2008.
And we are barreling toward another. The end result,
at home and abroad, is serfdom.
in another understanding important to those caught
up in the pressures of a single election cycle,
viewed electoral campaigns, like union organizing,
as a process of educating the public about the
nature of capitalism. These activities, divorced
from “revolutionary consciousness”—from the ultimate
goal of overthrowing capitalism—were, she said, “a
labor of Sisyphus.”
We who seek
to build radical third-party movements must
recognize that it is not about taking power now.
It is about taking power, at best, a decade from
now. Revolutions, Luxemburg reminded us, take time.
understanding that eludes many Bernie Sanders
supporters, Luxemburg also grasped that socialism
and imperialism were incompatible. She would have
excoriated Sanders’ ostrichlike refusal to confront
American imperialism. Imperialism, she understood,
not only empowers a war machine and enriches arms
merchants and global capitalists. It is accompanied
by a poisonous ideology—what social critic
Dwight Macdonald called the “psychosis of
permanent war”—that makes socialism impossible.
in the name of national security, demands the
eradication of civil liberties. It defines dissent
as treason. It creates a centralized system of power
that ultimately—as has happened in the United
States—serves the dictates of empire rather than
democracy. Democracy becomes farce, or in our case,
a tawdry reality show that coughs up two of the most
unpopular presidential candidates in American
history. Society devolves into what Karl Marx called
“parliamentary cretinism” or what political theorist
Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism.”
Democracy is a facade.
is ruled by two iron dictums—maximize profit and
reduce labor costs. And as capitalism advances and
consolidates power in a world where resources are
becoming scarce and mechanization is becoming more
sophisticated, the human and environmental cost of
exploitation of the working class as an economic
process cannot be abolished or softened through
legislation in the framework of bourgeois society,”
Luxemburg wrote. Social reform, she said, “does not
constitute an invasion into capitalist exploitation,
but a regulating, an ordering of this exploitation
in the interest of capitalist society itself.”
is an enemy of democracy. It denies workers the
right to control means of production or determine
how the profits from their labor will be spent.
American workers—both left and right—do not support
trade agreements. They do not support the federal
bailouts of big banks and financial firms. They do
not embrace astronomical salaries for CEOs or wage
stagnation. But workers do not count. And the more
working men and women struggle to be heard, the
harsher and more violent the forms of control
employed by the corporate state will become.
also understood something that eluded Vladimir
Lenin. Nationalism—which Luxemburg called “empty
petty-bourgeois phraseology and humbug”—is a
disease. It disconnects the working class in one
country from another—one of the primary objectives
of the capitalist class.
on the left and the right—in our case, the corporate
Democrats and corporate Republicans—vie to be more
patriotic and hawkish, they deify the military and
the organs of internal security. They revoke basic
civil liberties in the name of national security and
law and order. This process grooms a segment of the
population, as we see in Trump rallies, for fascism.
Nationalism, Luxemburg warned, is always a tool used
to betray the working class. It is, she wrote, “an
instrument of counterrevolutionary class policy.” It
unleashes powerful forms of indoctrination.
contagion of nationalism erupted at the outbreak of
the First World War, liberal European parties,
including the German Social Democrats, swiftly
surrendered to right-wing nationalists in the name
of the fatherland despite many preceding years of
anti-war rhetoric. Luxemburg saw this betrayal as
evidence of the fundamental moral and political
bankruptcy of the liberal establishment in a
By the time
the war was over, 11 million soldiers on all sides,
most of them working-class men, were dead.
Capitalists, who had grown rich from the slaughter,
had nothing to fear now from the working class. They
had fed them to the mouths of machine guns.
distrusted disciplined, revolutionary elites—Lenin’s
vanguard. She denounced terror as a revolutionary
tool. She warned that revolutionary movements that
were not democratic swiftly became despotic. She
understood the peculiar dynamics of revolution. She
wrote that in a time of revolutionary ferment, “It
is extremely difficult for any directing organ of
the proletarian movement to foresee and calculate
which occasions and factors can lead to explosions
and which cannot.” Those who were rigidly tied to an
ideology or those who believed they could shape
events through force, were crippled by a “rigid,
mechanical, bureaucratic conception.”
Revolutions, for Luxemburg, were as much the product
of mass struggle as its instigator. She knew that
revolution was a “living” entity. “It was formed not
from above,” but from the “consciousness of the
masses.” And this consciousness took years to build.
A revolutionary had to respond to the unpredictable
moods and sentiments that define any revolt, to the
unanticipated responses of a population in revolt.
achieve power during the 1917 revolution, was forced
to follow her advice, abandoning many of his most
doctrinaire ideas to respond to the life force of
Russian Revolution itself. “Lenin,” Robert Looker
wrote, “was a Luxemburgist in spite of himself.”
population finally rises up against a decayed system
not because of revolutionary consciousness, but
because, as Luxemburg pointed out, it has no other
choice. It is the obtuseness of the old regime, not
the work of revolutionaries, that triggers revolt.
And, as she pointed out, all revolutions are in some
sense failures, events that begin, rather than
culminate, a process of social transformation.
no predetermined plan, no organized action, because
the appeals of the parties could scarcely keep in
pace with the spontaneous rising of the masses,” she
wrote of the 1905 uprising in Russia. “The leaders
had scarcely time to formulate the watchwords of the
“Revolutions,” she continued, “cannot be made at
command. Nor is this at all the task of the party.
Our duty is only at all times to speak out plainly
without fear or trembling; that is, to hold clearly
before the masses their tasks in the given
historical moment, and to proclaim the political
program of action and the slogans which result from
the situation. The concern with whether and when the
revolutionary mass movement takes up with them must
be left confidently to history itself. Even though
socialism may at first appear as a voice crying in
the wilderness, it yet provides for itself a moral
and political position the fruits of which it later,
when the hour of historical fulfillment strikes,
garners with compound interest.”
covered uprisings and revolutions around the
globe—the insurgencies in Central America in the
1980s, two Palestinian uprisings, the revolutions in
1989 in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania,
the street demonstrations that brought down
Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. Luxemburg’s
understanding of the autonomous nature of revolt is
correct. A central committee, like Lenin’s
Bolsheviks, because it is ruthless, secretive and
highly disciplined, is capable of carrying out a
counterrevolution to take control of and crush the
democratic aspirations of the workers. But such
organizations are not the primary engine of
revolution. The messiness of democracy, with all its
paralysis and reverses, keeps revolution alive and
vibrant. It protects the population from the abuse
of centralized power.
general elections, without freedom of the press,
freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, without the
free battle of opinions, life in every public
institution withers away, becomes a caricature of
itself, and bureaucracy rises as the only deciding
factor,” Luxemburg said.
consequences of not carrying out a revolution
against corporatism are catastrophic. This makes
Luxemburg vital. She warns us that in a crisis, the
liberal elites become our enemy. She cautions
against terror and gratuitous violence. She urges us
to maintain open, democratic structures to ensure
that power rests with the people. She keeps us
focused on the ultimate savagery of capitalism. She
understands the danger of imperialism. And she
reminds us that those of us committed to socialism,
to building a better world, especially for the
oppressed, must hold fast to this moral imperative.
If we compromise, she knew, we extinguish hope.
Hedges, spent nearly two decades as a foreign
correspondent in Central America, the Middle East,
Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more
than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian
Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas
Morning News and The New York Times, for which he
was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.