For a long time, in the months of spring, the legend circulated in the working-class neighborhoods of Berlin that she was still alive. Only at the end of May did her body emerge from the Landwehr, the channel where she had been thrown while she was still breathing. Rosa Luxemburg had not wanted to seek shelter elsewhere, while the Spartacist revolt was repressed in blood. Under the fire of machine guns, together with Karl Liebknecht and Paul Levi, he left the headquarters of the “Red Flag”, the organ of the Spartacus League, on 9 January.
She liked that name “Spartacus”, because it recalled the mythical past of the slave revolt. He had had more than one doubt about the themes and ways of the insurrection – no doubt, however, about the political value of the revolt. It was alongside the workers who rose up against the horrid owners of money, the heinous warlords who had produced the barbarism of the world conflict. It all happened in the first fifteen days of 1919. When the ferocious “Frankish Corps”, hired by Ebert’s Social Democratic government, burst into the city, that atrocious defeat became a symbol in the history of the left. “Order reigns in Berlin” is the title of Luxemburg’s latest article – but it is much more.
To live out his idea of communism, he worked as a milling machine at Renault. “But by being in the workshop, the misfortune of others entered my flesh,” wrote the great French philosopher. Which took his intuition to the extreme: in creation God did not extend but retracted himself
Little is really known about his murder. Exhausted from sleepless nights, prostrated by a dark sense of anguish, Rosa had not lost hope. She imagined that, for the umpteenth time, they would transfer her to prison. He had with him his suitcase with the necessary. But already at the entrance of the Hotel Eden the soldiers poured obscenities and insults against her. It was then a succession of violence.
Runge hit her with the butt of his rifle, Vogel finally fired a revolver shot at her. There is still a photo that immortalizes them on the night of the killing, as they celebrate with the troop. Both remained more or less unpunished. The real perpetrator, Captain Waldemar Papst, who later became a member of the Nazi party, could still speak as a winner in Germany in the 1960s, arguing that the killing was “justifiable also for moral and theological reasons”.
Rosa Luxemburg’s death soon became a symbol of many events. First of all it marked a watershed between two eras in German history. After that heinous crime, the killers of the far right felt free to liquidate the exponents of the radical left, from Gustav Landauer to Eugen Levine, Jewish intellectuals and far-sighted politicians. And later they extended the spectrum of their crimes. But that death also represented the definitive and irremediable rupture, on the European left, between Social Democrats and Communists. Especially since Luxemburg himself had been the most severe criticism of social democratic reformism.
Reforms can mitigate the most harmful effects of capitalism, without damaging its system which, thanks to its adaptability, overcomes the crises it produces. These are not two ways to reach the same goal, given that social democracy, by limiting itself to a “reclamation”, has reduced the instrument of reform to an end in itself, thus entering the ultimate horizon of capital.
But Rosa Luxemburg also pointed the finger at social democracy for the tendency towards nationalism which, today as then, has not disappeared. What is the nation, if not a fiction, the “construct of bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie”? The motto “socialism or barbarism”, revived in 1968, summarizes the legacy: either the European peoples will learn to dialogue beyond the borders, working together for social justice, or they will quickly slip into war barbarism. Therefore she had taken sides – among the few – against the first war, that carnage of the poor, that destruction of culture. But above all he had sensed the danger of a “national-socialism”. Rosa Luxemburg – we know – is the proper name of a “New International” yet to be built.
Has he therefore betrayed his Judaism? Usually the words addressed in prison to a friend who told her about a pogrom are extrapolated: “What do you mean by the peculiar Jewish sufferings? I feel just as close to the poor victims of Putumayo’s rubber plantations, or to the African blacks whose bodies Europeans play their game of hunting. ‘
On the other hand, wasn’t she the first to denounce capitalist colonialism that conquers lands and devours lives? However, it is wrong to believe that she – the “Galician Jewess”, as she was addressed – she, who had suffered from it personally, was not sensitive to anti-Semitism. But compassion has no boundaries.
Perhaps no one more than Hannah Arendt has been able to indicate the novelty of Rosa Luxemburg. Two women, two Jews, two intellectuals, capable of elaborating the vision of a different politics, open to common spaces of freedom. In many ways, Arendt proclaims himself heir to the libertarian democracy inaugurated by Luxemburg. “General strike in Berlin…”. In that January the news of the Spartacist uprising followed with spasmodic anticipation. Her mother Martha Arendt told her: “Be careful, because this is a historic moment.”
Rosa Luxemburg belonged to a group of Jewish pariahs who, “strangers to any social hierarchy”, guided by “moral principles” and mindful of the solidarity learned in the biblical pages, claimed that absence of roots which is accompanied by a much deeper sense of humanity. They were not assimilated Jews – Arendt writes – they were European Jews.
Not that Luxemburg ignored differences. Even as a woman. Rather, she was an outsider. But the feminine imprint emerges where she questions the birth of action, the unpredictable emergence of revolt movements, spontaneous events that, beyond any control and planning, open up a new political space. “No party can artificially manipulate them,” writes in Juniusbroschüre. There is no avant-garde that holds. What Lenin accused of spontaneism is, today more than ever, the way of looking at the “new” in politics, at the human experience of acting in concert to change the world.
Committed. Irreducible. Provocative. The German Jewish thinker, who found refuge and new stimuli in the United States, cannot be counted among the voices of feminism. But his reflections on the deceptions of politics are increasingly current
Arendt followed the trail both when he saw in the revolution the political event that constitutes the secret of the beginning in politics, and when he indicated in the system of councils, which reappear in history – from the Commune to the Hungarian revolution of ’56 – the true school of public life in which democracy is put into practice and regenerated.
The idea of a council republic is what separated Luxemburg from any intention of dictatorship. Because freedom is indispensable and is always “the freedom of those who think differently”. But beware: his idea of democracy is by no means the liberal one. It is therefore not surprising that in recent years his conception has been resumed within the debate on radical democracy or anarchist democracy.
Luxemburg itself is truly the symbol of the new. Every new left has restarted from its writings, every old left has forgotten even its name.
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