A Russian philosopher exiled by Lenin noted that post-1917 the Left now had moral authority right or wrong. True believers still hold that view and the hallowing of the pioneer German Social Democrat Rosa Luxemburg is a case in point. The first complete version of her Letters has just appeared in English, 140 years after her birth.
Polish-born Luxemburg was an independent-minded woman who combined a Swiss university education in politics and economics with a passionate desire to help the abused working class in Poland and Germany. But do we need the 14 volumes of her theoretical Works set to follow? She was a late-Enlightenment figure who combined a Kantian disdain for human exploitation with Marxist-driven but also highly poeticised agitation for an economically more just society. In 1919 with Karl Liebknecht she led the communistic Spartacus uprising in Berlin and both were subsequently murdered by the far-right Freikorps.
The problem today is not her sympathy with the exploited workforce but her faith in dialectical materialism. Any 21st-century reader can see that no hocus-pocus Historical Necessity is going to bring about socialism or any other kind of state. Any debate about Luxemburg has to set her fine intentions against her ideological errors.
In predominantly social democratic Germany Rosa is respected for contributing to the mainstream socialist tendency of European politics today. But what did we get in London? The gathering of a sect to worship her. There are still people who believe that History is trundling towards some inevitable goal of quasi-divine justice. Like others who still believe in the divine right of kings, I suppose.
That great critic of Marxism Leszek Kolakowski observed that Luxemburg’s spontaneous personality actually blinded her to the fact that she was as doctrinaire as her friend Lenin when it came to “the line”. Yes, Luxemburg criticised Lenin, yes he betrayed her memory, but neither fact is enough to make her an angel.
A recent launch event for the Letters was a fond remembering of the radical 1960s for those who took part. Those who praised her uncritically had never made the intellectual journey the once devoted Marxist Kolakowski did. They never had to test their beliefs in practice by sending people to prison, and worse, and driving them out of their country. Now, if only we could have had a debate on that level.