January 15 marked the death of Rosa Luxemburg. Nearly a century later, her work continues to influence and inspire the left today.

JANUARY 15 marked the death of the great revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg.  In 1919, Rosa, as well as her comrade Karl Liebknecht, were murdered by paramilitaries acting on behalf of the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party. Her body was thrown into Berlin's Landwehr Canal. She was 47 years old.

The life and work of Rosa Luxemburg continues to provide inspiration and lessons for the left today.

In her important essay 'Reform or Social Revolution', Luxemburg explains how superficial and temporary changes to the economy do not constitute a fundamental break from the past. Socialists cannot, Luxemburg argues, choose between reform and revolution as if they were choosing different sausages from the buffet of history:

"Those who declare themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal."

But Luxemburg also said that the fight for reforms was not inconsequential - but they could not be arbitrarily fenced off from  the socialist goal. This was a view promoted by social democrat Eduard Bernstein who wrote "The final goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me; the movement is everything.' Luxemburg neatly exposed the fallacy of Bernstein's argument: " Bernstein thus travels in a logical sequence from A to Z. He began by abandoning the final aim in favour of the movement. But as there can be no socialist movement without the socialist aim, he necessarily ends by renouncing the movement itself".

Catarina Martins: The left builds its response with hope, without fear.
Perhaps Luxemburg is best known for her observation that we ultimately have a clear choice - socialism or barbarism. She was convinced that if socialism didn’t triumph, capitalism would become ever more barbaric, wiping out centuries of gains in civilization.

This view was expressed by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. In 2006, he referred explicitly to Luxemburg’s words:

  “The choice before humanity is socialism or barbarism. … When Rosa Luxemburg made this statement, she was speaking of a relatively distant future. But now the situation of the world is so bad that the threat to the human race is not in the future, but now.”

At commemorations in Berlin over the weekend to mark the death of Rosa Luxemburg, Catarina Martins, the leader of Portugal's Left Bloc, described Rosa as "...a woman whose life inspires us all, a feminist who lead the way for us, an anti-war militant, a Marxist whose thoughts and struggles shaped and strengthened leftist politics".

Catarina joined some 4,000 people on Sunday who marched to Berlin's Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery, known as Germany's Monument to the Socialists.

She  observed that we can draw inspiration from the life of Rosa Luxemburg, knowing that "...we do not have to choose between neoliberals and the far right. We can choose to regain democracy and workers’ rights. The right has nothing to offer but fear and hate. The left builds its response in solidarity, with hope, without fear."

A timely message for us all, as we contemplate the potential horrors of the Trump presidency.


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