Houses of Cards*

Rosa Luxemburg on 13 January 1919

Atop smoking ruins, between the pools of blood and corpses of murdered ‘Spartacists’, the heroes of ‘order’ hasten to entrench their rule anew. The Ebert government is setting to work with frenzied energy to consolidate its power: henceforth it will rule by the bayonet. Like Caesar before him, Ebert has the guard troops march past in review and then addresses them. In the presence of the dead and wounded on the streets of Berlin, he offers ‘the government’s gratitude to the brave troops’, and assigns to them the task of safeguarding the National Assembly by force of arms. On the 11th, in his ‘Order of the Day’, ‘Supreme Commander’ Noske takes up the well-known catalogue compiled by Hindenburg, von Kessel and all the beadles of the Hohenzollern regime: ‘In the east, car-loads of Spartacists, revolvers in hand, are plundering one house after another ... The last illusion that this is a political movement has been exploded; robbery and pillage are revealed to be the one and only goal of the revolt ...’ The government’s patience is exhausted, and now its ‘heavy artillery’ and machine-guns shall have their say. ‘The working class must be unanimous in opposing the Spartacus League’, concludes the blood-stained upstart.

This is how Scheidemann et al. hope to re-establish their governing power – with the material assistance of the counter-revolutionary military, with the moral support of the bourgeoisie and over the corpses of the revolutionary Berlin workers.

      There is, however, one flaw in this calculation. The military and the bourgeoisie, who today are helping Ebert and Scheidemann out of the mire, want to enjoy the fruits of the bloody harvest themselves. These elements support the ‘socialist’ government only so long as they believe that they can keep a tight rein on the proletarian masses by waving the false banner of socialism, and can strangle the revolution and socialism by means of their ‘moral’ influence. But now the spell has been broken. The past week has torn open the abyss that yawns between the Ebert government and the revolution. Today it is obvious that Ebert and Scheidemann can rule only by the bayonet. If this is the case, however, then the bayonet will also rule without Ebert and Scheidemann. The bourgeoisie is going all out for an open proclamation of the dictatorship of the sabre, for the full restoration of the old ‘order’: ‘The rioters should be court-martialled or imprisoned,’ cries the Tägliche Rundschau, ‘they have no right to be left at large ... Law and order must be re-established down to the very last detail; the police, who virtually ceased to exist after November 9th, must be restored to their previous level and importance, the police force must be rearmed and accorded full powers.’

At the same time the leader of the Noske-Guard, Colonel Reinhardt, declares he will proclaim martial law; he need take orders from no one – not even from the government – for he is a soldier and will decide on his own. And the Third Guard Regiment declared on its own responsibility that it was ‘determined to bring about’ the National Assembly ‘by force of arms’. In Berlin and its suburbs, officers are making arrests on their own responsibility.

     Thus the counter-revolutionary officer-corps is rebelling against Ebert’s government and is making it clearly known that the whole affair was intended the other way around : Ebert and Scheidemann were supposed to pull the bourgeoisie’s chestnuts out of the fire, and not vice versa. Should it come to the point where the bourgeoisie must save the ‘socialist’ government from the revolutionary workers, then the game is over, then the bourgeoisie may well think, and not without reason, that they have more capable candidates for the dictatorship of the sabre than the upstarts, Ebert and Noske.

     On the third side, however, the Haase party is attempting to use the crisis to establish a coalition government ‘of all socialist tendencies’. This is quite in keeping with Haase’s underhand policy of drowning all inner contradictions of the revolution in an indiscriminate melange, of concealing all contradictions and of dissolving the fighting energy of the masses in a putrid compromise. Only the ‘compromised leaders’ Ebert, Scheidemann, Landsberg, Noske, must leave the scene. Only a change in personnel need take place but just as before Scheidemann’s policies should remain at the helm, and ‘all socialist tendencies’ should form a joint government with them.

     Today, in view of the bodies of murdered proletarians, in view of the bloody orgies of Scheidemann et al., the ‘Spartacists’ have a contempt grown tenfold and a clenched fist for this miserable policy of compromise and betrayal of the cause of the revolution. The Haase people’s empty phrases about a coalition ‘of all socialist tendencies’ are in reality just a repetition of the former well-known combination: Scheidemann and the Independents. All that the USPD’s great to-do about ‘unification’ amounts to is the resurrection of the Ebert-Haase government with a change in personnel. And the stronger the terms with which Ebert and Scheidemann are reviled in Freiheit, the more certainly is the ignominious fall of the USPD prepared by this bogus cannonade. And the USPD, despite all the lessons it has been taught, despite the fact that it was forced to give up this partnership with Scheidemann et al. on December 28th, wants simply to return to this arrangement – only under new company executives.

     Thus the present crisis gives rise to three combinations:

  • Ebert and Scheidemann want to continue the status quo, their own rule, supported by the bayonets of the bourgeoisie;
  • the USPD wants to turn back the development to November 9th, to the Ebert-Haase government, but with the names changed;
  • the bourgeoisie, finally, wants events to revert to the situation prior to November 9th, to the naked dictatorship of the sabre.

    All three combinations are houses of cards if only because they are all based on outdated and outmoded historical stages. The revolution cannot be turned back, inverted, to November 9th, and even less to the wonderful era prior to November 9th. And it is just as impossible for Ebert’s sceptre to pin it down firmly under a situation of stalemate.

     The whole political significance and historical content of the crisis of the past week lies precisely in the fact that the revolution is being driven forward by its inner force and logical development to bring about the proletariat’s conquest of power, the realization of socialism, even though today oppositional factors dog its every step. Should these oppositional forces gain the upper hand for the moment by means of crude force, they will nonetheless be powerless to restrain the further course of development, the victory march of the revolution.

    And this is best manifest in the fact that not one combination which could last for any length of time can be erected upon the ruins of this week. Whatever may come about tomorrow or the day after as the result of and solution to the crisis, it will be a provisional arrangement, a house of cards. Let the naked force of machine-guns or the ambiguity of the USPD’s plan of deception gain the upper hand – in the shortest possible time the primeval force of the revolution, namely the economic struggles, will put an end to all these games. Again and again the revolution will bring to the fore the basic question: the general reckoning between labour and capital. And this reckoning is a world historical conflict between two mortal enemies which can be fought out only in a long power struggle, eye to eye, hand to hand.

     Scarcely will the ruins and the corpses of this latest episode be cleared away when the revolution will take up anew its untiring daily work. The ‘Spartacists’ will continue to go their own way with their unshakable purpose. The number of their slain comrades is mounting weekly, but the number of their supporters is growing a hundred times as rapidly. Under the situation of martial law during the war, they filled the gaols and prisons; under the ‘socialist’ government of Ebert and Scheidemann, they are filling the graves in the Friedrichshain Cemetery. But the masses of the proletariat are swarming in increasingly large multitudes around the banner of the relentless revolutionary struggle. For the moment a few groups may let themselves be intoxicated and captivated by the demagoguery and the clap-trap of ‘unity’ ; all that this means is that tomorrow, after fresh disappointments and disenchantments, they will stand all the more firmly and faithfully by the only party that knows no compromise, no vacillation, that is taking the path prescribed by history without looking to the left or right, without counting its enemies and dangers – until victory.

First published in: Die Rote Fahne no. 13, Berlin, January 13th, 1919.

Quotes taken from: Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political Writings, edited and introduced by Robert Looker, pp.295-9. und

* This is a draft version translated by Zachary Murphy King. The final translation will appear in the publication of the fifth volume of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Peter Hudis and forthcoming in 2020 from Verso Books with the support of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.