On the Immortality of the Soul

January 15, 2023

In Journal Norman Finkelstein

On the Immortality of the Soul (January 15, 2023)


1871 – 1919


Rosa Luxemburg was murdered 104 years ago today, on January 15, 1919. She, alongside Karl Liebknecht, were organizing a revolt of the German working class when the Freicorps, precursors of the Nazis, tortured and then killed them.  The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) acquiesced in their murders.  Rosa had belonged to the SPD, but split from it when its new leaders—Ebert, Scheidemann, and Noske—openly aligned with the German bourgeoisie. (In my dark moments, filled with vindictive rage, I wish these Judases had gotten their just dues and ended up in Hitler’s concentration camps.)  Franz Mehring, Karl Marx’s first great biographer, said of the verbal abuse Rosa often suffered in the SPD: “That is really not nice, and even less so because this tasteless knocking of the most brilliant intellect of all the scientific heirs of Marx and Engels can, in the last resort, only be rooted in the fact that it is a woman whose shoulders bear this intellect.”  Rosa did not need the brain (or braids) of Kimberlé Crenshaw to know that women suffer from a compound oppression.  A century before Ms. Intersectionality came along, Rosa observed that “proletarian women [are] the poorest of the poor, the most disempowered of the disempowered.”  Yet, it would never have occurred to Rosa to use her sex as an excuse or a crutch.  She pressed forward confident that, come what may, by the cleverness of her wit and the forcefulness of her will, she’d find her way.[1]  Although a political radical, she was intensely private and derived her supreme pleasure from her reclusive mental labors: “I feel very well insofar as I am able to get work done.  Work—that is to say, hard intensive work, which makes complete demands on one’s brain and nerves—is, after all the greatest pleasure in life”; “I prefer to sit at home at my desk, in my warm room … and read.  I fear that more than ever I am able to make do without people, and withdraw more and more into myself.”  (Karl Marx once said that his favorite occupation was “book-worming.”) From early on, her political radicalism put her at loggerheads with the SPD leadership, which had made its peace with the capitalist system.  After her incendiary speech at a party conference, venerable SPD founder August Bebel amusingly quipped, “I cannot help glancing at my boots to see whether they’re wading in blood.”  But Rosa could give as good as she got.   She and Clara Zetkin were once out walking en route to meet Bebel for lunch when they accidentally wandered onto an army firing range.  When they told Bebel what happened, he joked, “What would they write on your tombstones if you were shot?” Without missing a beat, Rosa shot back, “Here lie the last two men of German Social Democracy!”  If not the last laugh, History records that Rosa Luxemburg got the last word: the Judases are long forgotten; her name lives on.   In our Age of Wokeness, changing one’s pronouns is acclaimed a revolutionary act.  A Google search reports that “Judith Butler is a lesbian, legally non-binary, and as of 2020 said they use both they/them and she/her pronouns but prefer to use ‘they’ pronouns.”  The new generation faces unprecedented—quite possibly terminal—challenges: climate change, fascism, nuclear war. Paraphrasing Engels, Rosa famously said that the choice confronting humanity was between “socialism and barbarism.”  It might also be said the choice confronting us now is between Luxemburg’s uncompromising socialism and Butler’s navel-gazing.


“Unrelenting revolutionary activity, coupled with boundless humanity—that alone is the real life-giving force of socialism.  A world must be overturned, but every tear that has flowed and might have been wiped away is an indictment; and a man hurrying to perform a great deed who steps on even a worm out of unfeeling carelessness a crime.” (Rosa Luxemburg, 1918) (first in French, then in English)



[1] Rosa’s most enduring intimacy was with fellow revolutionary Leo Jogiches.  Of him, Clara Zetkin recalled: “He was one of those very masculine personalities—an extremely rare phenomenon these days—who can tolerate a great female personality in loyal and happy comradeship, without feeling her growth and development to be fetters on his own ego.” Jogiches was murdered shortly after Liebknecht and Luxemburg.