3 March 2019

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg


Grigorii Zinoviev

Translated, edited and introduced by Clayton Black

Three days after the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January, 1919, Grigorii Zinoviev, chair of the Petrograd soviet, delivered to that body the following tribute. The murders in Berlin heightened the sense of vulnerability among the Bolsheviks, and Zinoviev sought both to underscore the rabid determination of global opposition to socialist revolution and assure his listeners of socialism’s inevitable triumph.   

Economic conditions in Petrograd at that moment were already dire, as food supply had collapsed, factory work had come to a halt, and thousands had either been conscripted into the Red Army or fled to the countryside to find relief. The official declaration of “red terror” in September, 1918, contributed to the tensions. The Bolsheviks pinned their hopes on German radicals to spread the revolution into Europe and, once victorious, extend a fraternal hand to the struggling Soviet state. The murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht and the suppression of the Spartacist uprising cast a pall on those hopes. Zinoviev saved particular scorn for the German Social Democrats as traitors to the working classes and socialism and as puppets of the German bourgeoisie. 

Zinoviev’s tribute was published in Volume 16 of his collected works (Sochineniia, vol. 16, Osnovopolozhniki i vozhdi kommunizma; biograficheskie ocherki, Leningrad: Gosizdat, 1924, 198–212). It is important to remember that it was meant to be delivered as a speech, so the paragraphs tend to be short (often only a single sentence) and the punctuation inconsistent. Translation involves difficult decisions about word choice and sentence structure, but I have tried to remain true to the author’s meaning without doing violence to his words. Endnotes are Zinoviev’s. Items in brackets are the translator’s insertions for clarity or, in the case of note 6, correction of Friedrich Ebert’s name (identified as “Fritz” in the original). In note 8 I have replaced “proletariat” with “bourgeoisie,” as it seems obvious that this was intended. 

Clayton Black, Washington College

Rosa Luxemburg[2] belongs among the few individuals in the contemporary generation of the workers’ movement to whom a share of the greatest happiness came: to serve not only as a populariser of the ideas of Marx but also to work farther, to add her own word to the field of Marxist theory. 

Rosa Luxemburg stands in the ranks of the few figures of the Third International who combine the qualities of ardent agitator, brilliant politician and, along with them, one of the greatest theoreticians and writers of Marxism. Possessing all of these first-class attributes, Rosa Luxemburg worked on the stage of the labour movement no less than a quarter century. 

Rosa Luxemburg began her work as a young girl in Poland and then continued it in Germany; she worked also in Russia. She was the true embodiment of an internationalist.

I remember conversations with Rosa Luxemburg in 1906 in the village of Kuokkala in the little apartment of Comrade Lenin, then in semi-emigration after the first revolution had been broken. 

The first person to initiate a theoretical assessment of that suppressed revolution; the first Marxist figure who understood the meaning of our soviets already in 1905, even though they had only just been created; the first European Marxist to clearly appreciate the role awaiting mass revolutionary strikes in combination with armed uprising––this was Rosa Luxemburg. 

Her brilliant books and articles on the mass strike, her speeches in Jena[3] at the German Social-Democratic congress, taking place at the moment of our revolution, her identification of the role that awaited the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies to play––all of these points, made over a decade ago, were of colossal historical significance. 

To Rosa Luxemburg belongs the immense credit, which she shares with our comrade and teacher, Lenin, for formulating in 1907 at the international socialist congress in Stuttgart the basic idea for which Liebknecht and Luxemburg perished and for which everything that is honest and heroic in the international working class is now fighting. 

At the Stuttgart congress in 1907 two worlds stood opposed to one another.  Bernstein and the revisionists, as they were called then, insisted that, in essence, the working class should not reject the so-called colonial policy or imperialism (as we would put it now) but carry it out, as they said, in cultural forms and for the benefit of culture.  Even Bebel, who in his declining years made many concessions to the right wing of Social Democracy, even Bebel wavered. And only a small group of Marxists, at the head of which stood Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, said in 1907, eleven years ago: imperialist war is approaching, the bourgeoisie of all countries is leading all of humanity toward this unavoidable catastrophe.

What will be the tasks of worker-revolutionaries when the criminal hand of the bourgeoisie leads Europe to that imperialist war?  And Luxemburg and Lenin answered:  the task will be to use the entire economic and political crisis that will result from the war to lift the masses to struggle against the capitalist order!

In other words, they said then: the task will be to turn the imperialist war into a civil war––into a war of workers, peasants, and soldiers against the bourgeoisie, against the authors of the war!

Rosa Luxemburg, in the ranks of the old, formal, official German Social Democrats, tirelessly and with immense talent fought precisely for this fundamental idea: she first sounded the alarm in the ranks of German Social Democracy and at all congresses demanded acceptance of the mass political strike, at a time when even the best of the then leaders of German Social Democracy did not what to hear of it.

More than once she rebuked the most stalwart leaders of German Social Democracy in the discussion of questions of foreign policy, saying that, when the issue is adopting resolutions, the socialists are very radical, but when it comes to genuine struggle against the war and against the government that called forth this war, then they all “hide in the bushes.”  These words of hers at that time seemed enormously brazen: German Social Democracy was at the height of its glory. 

Every Petersburg worker who has been in the ranks of the revolution for several years knows that once, when no one had the nerve to criticize German Social Democracy, when it seemed exemplary in all respects, Rosa Luxemburg already loudly proclaimed that the party was rotting at its roots.

I remember perfectly well the Jena congress of German Social Democrats that took place in 1911; Rosa Luxemburg crossed swords with August Bebel, who at that time leaned to the right, to the side of the old party, having declared war against Rosa Luxemburg for denouncing Social Democracy and for pointing out elements of chauvinism in the policies of the party’s C[entral] C[ommittee]. And you know what untouchable authority Bebel enjoyed in the ranks of German Social Democracy; at that congress, speaking with the greatest harshness against Rosa Luxemburg, he all but demanded her departure from the party. Only a small group headed by Clara Zetkin was united with Rosa Luxemburg and sat next to her when the reproaches poured over her. They did not want to listen to Rosa Luxemburg, but she was able to make them listen to her; she accepted the fight, raised the gauntlet thrown by Bebel, the best representative of the Second International, she made that congress, half of which consisted then of hucksters and traitors of socialism, pronounce the word “International.”

Rosa Luxemburg sounded the revolutionary alarm, she demanded honesty and loyalty to the banner of the International.

She did not betray herself during the war either. In the course of the entire war, one can say, she did not spend a single month in freedom,––Wilhelm with his gang and Scheidemann[4] with his fraternity played with her like a cat with a mouse––releasing her for several days, and, after a short time, picking her up again and putting her in prison, concocting various accusations, setting trials. They knew that one of the most dangerous enemies of the bourgeoisie, we can say without exaggeration, was and remained Rosa Luxemburg.

To Karl Liebknecht belongs, of course, no less credit. He also stood in the ranks of revolutionaries for nearly a quarter century. Karl Liebknecht––Comrade Trotsky also spoke to you about this––endured the entire revolution of 1905 together with us.

Liebknecht belonged to those few bold spirits in the ranks of German Social Democracy who demanded ten years ago, as it was expressed then, “antimilitarist” propaganda, i.e. revolutionary propaganda among the soldiers. 

We need to return, comrades, to the atmosphere of sleek and decorous Social Democracy and the Second International of that time, when the demands of Liebknecht seemed to be madness. Bebel himself, knowing Liebknecht since childhood and loving him as a son, attacked him harshly for such, in his view, an “adventurist” proposal. What do you mean, go to the soldiers to preach socialism!  German Social Democrats decided that only an adventurer could propose that! They feared that Social Democracy would lose its legal standing that way, that the bourgeoisie would be offended, that the bourgeoisie and the rulling classes would decide that German Social Democracy had ceased to side with the state!

Liebknecht was one of the first to swim against the current. And he succeeded in breaking the ice. For his famous booklet, “Against Militarism,” he was imprisoned for months on end.  He was a founder of the union of international youth, which has a great future. We know what an enormous role youth played in our revolution; it played the same in both the German and international [revolutions]. All that is youthful, fresh, honest, and revolutionary, vigorous, and upstanding in the working class has gathered around the banner of the union of youth, of which Liebknecht was one of the founders.

Liebknecht was in poor standing with the leaders of the Second International even before the start of the war, but with the start of the war he landed among the unquestionably suspicious. 

He did not personally participate in the Zimmerwald conference because he had been conscripted; he was sent to the front in the calculation that a stray bullet would remove that dangerous enemy of the bourgeoisie. Liebknecht sent us a letter at the Zimmerwald conference which ended with famous words in response to the slogan that Schiedemann and his fraternity had issued at the start of the war: “Civil peace, reconciliation between classes, between wolves and sheep, between the bourgeoisie and the working class, between the butcher-monarchs and the soldiers and peasants.” Such was the official slogan of German Social Democracy. The last phrase in Liebknecht’s letter read as such: “Comrades, our business now is to say––no civil peace, but civil war, this is the watchword of our day.”

Liebknecht was alone in voting against war credits in the German Reichstag, and his voice resounded across the entire world.

We will also not forget that in France, where the bourgeoisie raised an especially strong wave of chauvinism, where everything German in 1915 was cursed, where workers and soldiers were infected with unusual hatred toward mankind, the name of Liebknecht was pronounced with love! We know only one example from French history when a German socialist was so loved by French workers: I speak of Friedrich Engels.

At the beginning of the war, in 1915, everything German was cursed in France.  The German proletariat was portrayed as a collection of bandits. Some tried to present Scheidemann’s policies as though they were a consistent implementation of Marx’s teaching. Dozens of articles about this were printed in the most widely distributed bourgeois newspapers, and entire brochures were published to the effect that K. Marx was himself always a pan-Germanist, a proponent of the “great” bourgeois Germany.  And when the entire official, so-called Socialist Party of France gave in to that chauvinist current, the aged Vaillant[5], the old communard, in his elder years having extended his hand to the devil of defencism, nevertheless lost his patience when newspapers began to defame Engels. Ready at that time to drown every German in a spoonful of water, he appeared with an article in which he said: there were only two Germans in Germany who, after the Franco-Prussian war, remained internationalists––Marx and Engels.

Karl Liebknecht enjoyed the same trust and popularity in recent years in France. There is a document––and, probably, there are many of them––that bears witness to the love in France for Karl Liebknecht. Following one frightfully unsuccessful exchange of fire for the French in 1915, the French frontline soldiers gathered in a circle, started a fire, and the survivors––among whom were many French intellectual workers––began to discuss their fate and think about what awaited them further. And right at that moment one thoughtful shout from a soldier resounded: “Are there not, after all, people who are fighting against this hell, even individuals who come out on their own in the course of world history and proclaim “down with the war”[?]  To which another French soldier pronounced: “Yes,Karl Liebknecht.” In 1915, in the trenches, where special efforts were made to enflame chauvinism, in France, which was completely engulfed by the flame of chauvinism and hated everything German, four years ago the best people, the best soldiers, the best workers recalled the name of Karl Liebknecht with reverence.

Now imagine the pain that news that Karl Liebknecht is no longer among the living calls forth in the hearts of both German and French soldiers. Imagine what powerful propaganda the very death of such a man as Karl Liebknecht serves for the idea of communism. 

When Karl Liebknecht emerged from prison, from that stone cell, when the raging workers’ movement tore him from there, the first movement of his spirit was to recall the working class of the country in which that class raised the banner of the Commune and to which befell the great joy of victory.  K. Liebknecht first of all thought of us, of the Russian revolution, and headed directly to his goal, to the building of the Russian embassy, where our comrades were still at that time, bared his head before the building and said that he sends “brotherly greetings to the first government of the calloused hand.”

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg always felt the most intimate and fraternal connection to our revolution. Precisely for that they were especially hated by the Berlin social democrats. At present Scheidemann and his gang, Ebert[6] and his government, are living exclusively on the charity of rich uncle Wilson[7] and the French imperialists who hope to stave off the wave of Bolshevism. Scheidemann’s government enjoys the goodwill of the international thugs only insofar as it enters the struggle against the Russian revolution. 

You remember the recent dialogue between French and German generals.  The French general rebuked the German general for the help that German soldiers supposedly gave to us, the Bolsheviks, in occupied places around Riga. The German general answered, “your excellency, why do you not understand that your accusation is without foundation? Germany is closer to Russia, consequently Bolshevism is more dangerous for us than for you.” You see, in conversation with each other these people do not hide what matters.

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were hated by them for bravely, brightly, and ably defending all that was best in the Russian proletariat; they were dedicated to the Russian revolution and wanted to follow in its footsteps.

Do you want to know why exactly Rosa Luxemburg was killed? Read her speech to the congress of Spartacists,[8] given on 31 December, 1918.  Rosa Luxemburg accused Scheidemann and his gang of wanting to help strangle the Russian revolution. She said, “Look what is happening in Riga and in the occupied places. In Riga, thanks to Scheidemann’s odiousness and the work of the German leader of trade unions, August Winnig,[9] German proletarians together with Allied forces and the Baltic barons are coming out against Russian Bolshevik forces. This is so odious that I openly and calmly declare that the German trade union leaders and German Social Democrats are the greatest of scoundrels.”

She hurled that right in their faces! Rosa Luxemburg added, “Sitting in our current Scheidemann government are not only betrayers of the proletarian revolution but also genuine criminals!”

The hatred of these leaders of the German proletariat is now obvious! The entire hope of the world bourgeoisie is concentrated on using any sort of barrier to separate the workers of one country from the workers of another country, and, most important, to separate them from the workers of Russia, who defeated their bourgeoisie. And they concentrate their strength, all of their bloodthirstyness, against the people who are broadening the boundaries of the revolution, who are internationalists, who teach the German workers to follow in the footsteps of the Russian communist working class. That is what Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht died for and that is why they are loved by Russia’s workers and peasants, who in a whole slew of regions tried to name their villages “Karl Liebknecht village.” These peasants, these workers and soldiers will honor forever the names of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

Comrades, our hearts are heavy. Recent weeks have been especially difficult. The coming months may be even more difficult for us. At a moment when things are particularly difficult, when our Red Army soldiers, somewhere around Archangelsk or in some other distant front in the cold, poorly dressed and shoed, have to lie side-by-side and return fire from imperialist bands; or when our women workers have to return to hungry children with an eighth of a pound of bread or have to overcome these or other new adversities––at that difficult moment we will remember Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

For what did the German communards fight; what were German workers seeking, what were their great leaders––Liebknecht and Luxemburg––seeking? They were seeking what you and I already have. They fully appreciated the meaning of the victory that they could gain. If they were victorious tomorrow––it would not mean that the workers of Berlin would receive two pounds of bread apiece and that there would be foodstuffs in Berlin and that rivers of milk with banks of jelly would flow there. The Berlin communards knew, just like the Petrograd workers in October last year, what they would have to endure after the seizure of power. Perhaps several years of serious impoverishment, struggles, famine, starvation! They knew this perfectly well. And they did not deceive the Berlin workers or tell them that if the communards win tomorrow everyone would be well fed.

No, they said that new conflicts await you. Rosa Luxemburg especially emphasized this. She said, “We stand at the outset of a new struggle. Ahead are months and possibly years of difficult trials, deprivation, struggle.”

The Berlin communards knew where they were headed; they went toward it and fell by the hundreds, they gave up the best of their people. Who now, after the death of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, will think of their own personal life?

When the working class sacrifices its blood so selflessly, gives up the best that it has without hesitating for a second, will rank-and-file participants really waver? Will our class, under the influence of whatever deprivations may be, whatever misfortunes may be, really waver for even a moment?

Berlin workers do not lag behind Petrograd or Moscow workers, and now they are the focus of the proletarian struggle for the entire universe. They have followed our path, they have fallen by the thousands, and tomorrow thousands more will fall in the name of achieving what already exists in Petrograd and Moscow and in Soviet Russia.

Is this not the greatest satisfaction for the workers, for the peasants and Red Army soldiers of Soviet Russia? The best in humanity is following our path, seeing the inevitability and rightness of that path. Yesterday was difficult for us, comrades; and today is difficult; these days are difficult for us. With that there should be no doubt that the blood of Liebknecht and Luxemburg will quicken the ripening of world socialist revolution!

Comrades, just as we are feeling in this hall, so, you can be sure, the working men and women of the whole world felt yesterday and feel today. Can you really doubt that the Parisian working men and women, who have such exalted revolutionary traditions––people who, in 1915 with reverence spoke the name of Karl Liebknecht––can you doubt at all that they, like us, are overflowing with determination to struggle to the end and that they also clench their fists and say, “We will avenge the sacred blood of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg!”

And thus say workers of the entire world now. The crime that Scheidemann and Ebert committed will cost them dearly. I am convinced that the best of the German proletariat is repeating to itself, “Can we really tolerate for even one more hour the power of the bourgeois murders who call themselves Social Democrats, who killed Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg––the pride of the international proletariat?”

Now we see the results of the criminal policies of the gentlemen Scheidemanns. 

At first glance, perhaps, what happened in Germany may seem confusing. After all, the same government that calls itself the government of a socialist republic is in power.

Rosa Luxemburg, with characteristic clarity, sketched the situation in Germany in a few words in her final speech. Here is what happened: German Social Democracy, having for many years played a reactionary role in history, was able to seize the soviets through its apparatus of bureaucratic officials, usurp their rights, impose its own policies, and gather everything in its own paws. These gentlemen quickly dressed themselves up as proponents of Soviet power, seized the driving reins, and to get to power German workers will have to step over the corpse of so-called Social Democracy. 

Scheidemann and Ebert are now calling their constituent assembly[10].

Comrades, we dissolved the constituent assembly exactly 12 months ago. Look how the international proletariat views our policies. Who stands for the constituent assembly in Germany? A herd of bankers, Wilhelm’s gang, the gang of murderers of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Not a month passed before the German proletariat declared, “Only over our dead bodies will you come to a constituent assembly.” To the bourgeoisie it seems that the proletariat is a corpse over which they will step to get to the constituent assembly. In fact the corpse is the old, rotten Social Democrats who have turned into bourgeois executioners. The workers of Germany will step over it, and together with them we will reach the complete victory of the Third International!

[1]  “Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg,” a speech delivered to a meeting of the Petrograd Soviet on 18 January 1919, was published in a special brochure together with a speech of Comrade Trotsky.

[2]  Born in 1870, killed 15 January, 1919.

[3]  The Jena congress of Social Democrats in 1905.

[4]  Scheidemann, Philipp––member of the German Social-Democratic party, prominent deputy in the Reichstag. In the final elections before the war elected vice-president of the Reichstag by the Social Democrats. During the war––leader of the right opportunist wing of the German Social Democrats, social patriot, voted for war credits, led the fight against K. Liebknecht and the “Spartacus” group; after the November revolution of 1918––head of the compromise government of republican Germany.

[5]  Vaillant, Edouard––one of the leaders of the French Socialist party. In 1871 elected to the National Assembly as a socialist, was a member of the Commune; fled, sentenced to death, in 1881 amnestied, in 1884 a member of the Parisian municipality, from 1893 a deputy. Leader of a small group of Blanquists. After 1914 a patriot and defensist. Died during the war.

[6]  Ebert, Fr[iedrich]––one of the leaders of German Social Democracy, president of the German Republic. Prior to the war stood on the right wing of the party, during the war an ardent chauvinist, after the war an irreconcilable foe of the communists.

[7]  Wilson, Woodrow (1857–1924)––”Democratic” president of the United States, formerly a professor.  A pacifist who during the war gave many widely broadcast speeches against the war and proposed the project for creating the League of Nations as a means for promoting peace in the future. In 1917–1918 enjoyed immense popularity not only in liberal bourgeois circles but also among American and West European workers. Many considered him a great prophet who would open a new era in the history of humanity. In the end, however, Wilson signed the Versailles agreement, and the League of Nations became a simple servant of the Entente. The United States refused to ratify the Versailles agreement and did not agree to join the League of Nations. Wilson’s prestige suffered a fatal blow, he became a laughing stock for the entire world. In the presidential election of 1920 he was replaced by the “Republican” Harding. Died in 1924 “out of work.”

[8]  The Spartacists, i.e. members of the “Spartacus” union (Spartacus was the name of the leader of a well-known uprising of Roman slaves), formed at the beginning of the war by K. Liebknecht, R. Luxemberg, L. Jogiches (Tyszka), and others.  The goal of the union was to fight against official Social Democracy, which had betrayed the cause of the proletariat and supported the military policies of the German [bourgeoisie]. The Spartacists called workers not only to the fight against the war but also to social revolution. In 1916, after the split of the “independent SDs” from the official party, “Spartacus” joined the “independents,” preserving, however, its internal autonomy. When the “independents,” together with the official SDs, joined the “Council of People’s Plenipotentiaries” (a provisional revolutionary government) in November 1918, the Spartacists broke with them and, in December 1918, formed the German Communist party.

[9]  August Winnig––one of the leaders of the Hamburg trade-union movement, prior to the war was editor of the central organ of construction workers,Grundstein (Winnig was a mason by trade) and member of the local Hamburg parliament. Sided with the revisionist wing of the party. During the war became an ardent chauvinist and in 1918 played a leading role in the counterrevolutionary movement in the Baltics. In 1920, during the attempted revolutionary coup in Germany carried out by Kapp, offered his final services.

[10]  The speech was given on 18 January 1919, and 19 January of the same year elections for the National Assembly were to be held. The elections did, in fact, take place, and the resulting National Assembly, in which bourgeois parties dominated, drafted and promulgated the current bourgeois-republican constitution of Germany.