Remembering Karl Liebknecht

An introduction to “Socialism’s Foreign Policy”

Karl Liebknecht was not a great theorist. Unlike Rosa Luxemburg, with whose name he will be forever linked, he wrote no major treatises on forms of protest or political economy (and even had his doubts about the labor theory of value).1 Nor was he a skillful politician. Before the war he was mostly known for being the son of Marx’s colleague and SPD cofounder,2 while after the war he was far too reluctant to break from social democracy once and for all.

Yet Liebknecht was a man of principle. Sebastian Haffner, a famous liberal historian, described him as “one of the most courageous men Germany ever produced.”3 He proved himself capable of sudden flashes of insight, moreover, some of which can be read in the fragment that follows. Liebknecht wrote this piece in April 1918 from Luckau prison. Although rambling at times and jotted down hurriedly, it deals with crucial themes such as the dialectic of inside and outside, subject and object, consciousness and conditions. It thereby remains relevant today.

What Liebknecht hopes to ascertain here is what Trotsky attempted to theorize some years later as the “propitious moment,” specifically in connection with the failed German revolution, reflecting on the lessons of October 1917.4 Georg Lukács couched the problem in rather more philosophical terms as the Augenblick — that is, the fleeting glance or blink of an eye in which the class-conscious proletariat can subjectively intervene within the objective course of events and disrupt the capitalist totality. Often this was discussed as the “ripeness” of conditions.

“Rosa and Karl went to their deaths almost somnambulistically,” Paul Mattick later recalled.5 Indeed, a grim sense of foreboding hangs over their last articles, as if they already knew what was in store for them. Today, a century after the crushing the Spartacist revolt and the murder of its leaders, it is fitting to revisit works left by these slain revolutionaries.

1 For more on this see his Grundzüge einer Marxkritik, posthumously published in 1922.

2 Wilhelm Liebknecht. Luxemburg would sometimes joke that Liebknecht had been “born into” the party. Prior to August 1914, Karl had devoted most of his energy to bolstering the youth sections of the SPD. His decision to vote against credits for war made him the sole elected voice of opposition, and resulted in his trial in 1915 and jailing until November 1918.

3 Sebastian Haffner. Failure of a Revolution: Germany, 1918-1919. Translated by Georg Rapp. (The Library Press. New York, NY: 1973). Pg. 140.

4 Incidentally, this was Bordiga’s favorite Trotsky pamphlet (apart from Terrorism and Communism): “What does it mean to lose the propitious moment? The most favorable conditions for an insurrection exist, obviously, when a maximum shift in our favor has occurred in the relationship of forces. We are of course referring to the relationship of forces in the domain of consciousness, i.e., in the domain of the political superstructure, and not in the domain of the economic foundation, which may be assumed to remain more or less unchanged throughout the entire revolutionary epoch. On one and the same economic foundation, with one and the same class division of society, the relationship of forces changes depending upon the mood of the proletarian masses, the extent to which their illusions are shattered and their political experience has grown, the extent to which the confidence of intermediate classes and groups in the state power is shattered, and finally the extent to which the latter loses confidence in itself. During revolution all these processes take place with lightning speed. The whole tactical art consists in this: that we seize the moment when the combination of circumstances is most favorable to us.” Leon Trotsky. Lessons of October. Translated by Naomi Allen. The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1923-1925. (Pathfinder Press. New York, NY: 1975). Pg. 232.

5 Paul Mattick, Sr. Anti-Bolshevik Communism. (Merlin Press. Monmouth: 1978). Pg. 95.