Learning from the three Ls

Submitted by Matthew on 11 January, 2017 - 1:36 Author: Hal Draper

It was once a tradition for revolutionary socialists to mark every January by remembering the life and work of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In this 1949 article, the US socialist Hal Draper discusses the relevance of the socialism of “3Ls” for the German working class, then under the yoke of imperialist occupation, and for the American working class facing a war-mongering ruling class.


We socialists are not hero worshippers. But we have our heroes. Socialists are not hero worshippers because the very essence of socialism — far deeper than demands for specific social reforms or changes, or demands for nationalisation, for any specific programme — is the idea that the emancipation of the working class can only be the job of the working class itself. That as long as it sits back trusting passively in some leader or hero or even party to “do good” for the people, it will never get an inch nearer to the great goal of freedom.

Our heroes are not those who have promised to “do good” for the people, but those who have called on the people to take their fate into their own hands — called on them, stimulated them, lashed them into action and mass movement, pointing a direction and a way, a programme and a road of struggle. January is the month of heroes for us because it commemorates the death of three who, more than any other, believed with all their hearts and souls and intellects that this wretched, degenerating madhouse of a world could be changed only when the people no longer leaned back watching the powers that be manipulate the reins but surged forward and took charge themselves, conscious, aware, moving and suspicious of “do-gooders.”

These were three of the greatest socialist fighters of all time — Lenin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. By birth a German, a Pole and a Russian. (And though his name does not begin with L, and though January does not mark his anniversary, we would add a fourth who, in the memory of the socialist working class, stands out as a believer in the power of the people to free themselves — Eugene V. Debs, an American) They did not seek to “bring democracy” to the people; they sought to lead the people in the fight to win democracy for themselves — real democracy, thoroughgoing democracy, the democracy of a socialist world.

Today, when Germany is again — or still—the centre of world attention, the cockpit of the tug-of-war between American and Russian imperialism, we point first to the two Ls who gave their lives that the German working class might be spared the horrors of war and oppression: Liebknecht and Luxemburg. They had something to say to American workers who are wondering which of the would-be saviours today will give them what they want and need.

Today the German people lie at the feet of their conquerors. But that has been true not only since the war and the defeat in war: that has been true since their defeat by the conqueror who preceded Eisenhower — Hitler and Nazism. For it was the German people who were the, first victims of the Nazi power, before Czechoslovakia, before France, before Norway and the rest. Washington and London and Moscow triumphed over Hitler, after Hitler had first triumphed over the German people. And now the new conquerors ask: What to do with the Germans? How shall we “re-educate” them? How shall we “bring democracy” to them? How shall we wean them away from notions of world conquest? This is the hypocritical question asked by the Big Two who, right over the backs of the Germans, are sparring for world conquest themselves.

How shall we wean them away from warlike pursuits? This is asked by the Big Two who, using Germany as a no-man’s-land, are girding for war at a pace unprecedented. How shall we teach them that it is wrong to oppress other peoples and national minorities? This is seriously spoken of by two powers, one of which is an outstanding practitioner of minority persecution (of African Americans), and the other of which is the cruelest tyranny on the face of the globe in 1949; and both of them aiders and abettors of anti-democratic suppression on every continent. They are going to teach them! They are going to “bring democracy”! They are going to educate them in democracy by — keeping them disunited in split-up zones against their will and national desire, by denying them their own government!

Today Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, one the brain and the other the flaming spirit of the Germans’ long struggle against tyranny and oppression, would say to their countrymen: You will be free only when you get rid of your foreign “educators,” you can develop your democracy only when you kick out your hypocritical tutors, you will have peace only when these two organisers of the third world war are no longer on your soil! Take Germany into your own hands — in a united and independent Germany undominated by the capitalist west or the hideous despotism to the east! Take your country into your own hands — in each country, in each period, this has to mean something different in the concrete.

The United States is not occupied by foreign powers nor dictated to in foreign accents. But here in the United States a powerful labour movement — stronger in many ways than it has ever been before — sees (and its leaders even make speeches about the fact) that Washington is dominated and run by powers altogether alien to the interests of the people. The profiteers, the big corporations, the Sixty Families, the Dillon-Reed-Morgan-US Steel economic rulers, fronted by fair-promisers and campaign pledgers, sometimes ticketed Democrat and sometimes Republican, run an American Military Government of their own in Washington, our native AMG. They pass a Taft-Hartley Act, and the leaders of American labour look for salvation to a capitalist politician who, only two years ago, proposed a little Truman Act of his own to curb labour’s rights and who now, after election, reiterates that he still wants it. They push up prices and raise a stop-signal on wages, and the leaders of American labor say: wait for the Democratic Party to bring us what we want and need.

Take your country into your own hands: that goes for our labor movement too. The first step is in front of it: it does not have to get rid of foreign brass, or kick put foreign uniforms. All it has to do is to organise its own political strength, organise its own party, put the name of labour in the political arena where it belongs, independently — organise its own Labour Party. That is how the American working people can start on the road to their own emancipation as their own job. But for Lenin and Liebknecht and Luxemburg, as for Gene Debs, as for our people today, one horror stood out among all others as the outcome of the subjection of the people to powers above them and out of their control — the most terrible result of the subordination of the will of the people. War. When the people want peace, but wait for peace to be arranged for them; when the people want an end to mutual slaughter, but merely content themselves with placing hope in one or the other of the “peace agencies” of capitalism — then their very yearning for peace becomes a means to push them into the pit.

War — for peace; war — for democracy; war — to end war; war — to preserve the sanctity of international agreements; war — to defend the United Nations, it may be; war — to stem Russia’s expansion. It is a kind of jiu-jitsu — where the strength and momentum of the opponent are turned against him; in the politics of the capitalist democracies, the passive yearnings for peace are turned into justifications for war. Our modern warmakers are skillful navigators: they tack against the wind, but make their way to the appointed port of war for world conquest — in the name of peace. As long as the people are depending on them, and not on the Germany and Russia of twenty-five years ago had their liberals, and “socialists” and even “Marxists” who were against capitalist war in the abstract.

When it broke out, they had no difficulty finding the most “practical” and “realistic” reasons for supporting the Kaiser’s government and the Tsar’s government in the actual war. There were a handful, to begin with, who remained true to socialism and the anti-war struggle, and in the first place the three Ls. “Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, this capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics — as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity — so it appears in all its hideous nakedness.” Rosa Luxemburg wrote that in 1915, and this: “This madness will not stop, and this bloody nightmare of war will not cease until the workers of Germany, of France, of Russia wake up out of their drunken sleep; will clasp each others’ bands in brotherhood and will down the bestial chorus of war agitators and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the mighty cry of labour, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’”

They fought against the war. Only one country, then, lifted itself put of the war by its bootstraps, by the will of its people for peace, by their own movement — the revolutionary Russia or Lenin and Trotsky. That revolutionary Russia has gone under, and in its place is the nightmare of Stalinism, but the fire of anti-war struggle and socialist democracy that it raised and fanned is still the only beacon in the world to keep our feet from the abyss of capitalist barbarisation and Stalinist degeneration.

Labor Action, 31 January 1949.