Freedom is the freedom of those who think differently

For the 150th birthday of a great revolutionary. This often quoted sentence is by Rosa Luxemburg. It was published in 1918. One year later, it was murdered by Freicorps, who had made no secret of their reactionary to fascist worldview. Would she still hold on to him? What would Rosa Luxemburg say about all that is happening today in the left, not only in the party, but also outside of it?

“Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently,” is quoted by many and recited on very different occasions. Such an exclamation is easily uttered when one is in the minority, has power against oneself and wants to wrest a little (more) freedom from those who hold the monopoly of opinion.

In these cases, they appeal to the bourgeois state and also to its promise to grant freedom of speech and expression to those who reject the bourgeois state. In these cases, the sentence is still correct, but not really a challenge that Rosa Luxemburg raised to a revolutionary maxim at the time. Because the actual imputation that lies in this sentence does not refer to the others who forbid you to speak, who take inappropriate opinions as an occasion for political persecution.

The famous sentence is taken from a work dealing with the Russian Revolution, when it had triumphed in 1918 and those who were once persecuted could now become persecutors themselves, thus no longer having to beg or struggle for freedom, but were in the privileged position of “granting"it to (others). Rosa Luxemburg thus addresses this sentence above all to her own comrades, who fought fiercely about how it goes on, what advances the revolution, what harms it, what must be the next step, what leads to the impasse.

“Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for members of a party – however numerous – is not freedom. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. Not because of the fanaticism of ‘justice’, but because all the invigorating, salutary and purifying of political freedom is attached to this being and its effect fails when' freedom ' becomes a privilege.” (Rosa Luxemburg: Zur russischen Revolution, in: dies.: Collected Works, Vol. 4, Berlin 1974, p. 359)

In doing so, it wanted to set a standard for the way in which contradictions, opposing positions within and outside the (communist) party should be dealt with. Quite optimistically and magnificently, one could understand the sentence like this: let us discuss together, let us endure the contradictions by learning to understand the “other”, not in enmity, but in the knowledge that the “right” way only arises when one has gone the other way. And if we then decide on the “right” path, we do so in a way that takes into account that the path we did not take might have been the right one after all.

This does not exclude the struggle for the “right” answer. It only takes into account that what is right does not crystallize in the denial of the other, but in proving itself in the other. Rosi Wolfstein has formulated this revolutionary self-understanding, this self-commitment:

“Through questions and repeated questions and research, she (Rosa Luxemburg, d.V.) brought out of the class what was only in her knowledge of what had to be determined. Through questions she knocked the answer and let us hear for ourselves where and how it sounded hollow, through questions she scanned the arguments and let us see for ourselves whether they were crooked or straight, through questions she forced us beyond the recognition of our own error to our own finding of a sound and sound solution.” (Rosi Wolfstein, 1920, quoted in: Jörn Schütrumpf (ed.): Rosa Luxemburg or: Der Preis der Freiheit, 3., überarb. u. erg. Dissolution., Berlin 2018, p. 102)

All this can be honored, remembered, made the political legacy of a political movement that does not give up its ideals when it comes to power (with its help), but makes it a natural component of a new sociality.

But what do we do with it today? What would Rosa Luxemburg say about all that is happening today in the left, not only in the party, but also outside of it? Would Rosa Luxemburg also, 150 years later, include with the “freedom of dissenters” precisely those who do not like the party or who also disturb a left that moves in the extra-parliamentary space?

Rosa Luxemburg would be 150 years old today. This is indeed a reason to remember them, their political analyses, their revolutionary struggles. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which can be attributed to the party DIE LINKE, does this, quite obviously, especially with regard to its financial foundations. On their homepage you will find a fine tour through Rosa Luxemburg’s life and work.

This honor only becomes oppressive when one looks in vain for a reference to the present! The left, not only as a party, has never been so weak and meaningless as it is now. This has many reasons, but also those that are not in your hands at all. What she has to answer for all by herself, however, is the strife, the inability to openly and respectfully resolve necessary conflicts and divergences. Speechlessness and an ever-increasing repertoire of defamations and denunciations make the left a rather unattractive, mean place that one does not want to face in the long run.

Rosa Luxemburg reloaded

Just imagine for a moment that Rosa Luxemburg is here, with us, taking the time to analyze the left in Corona times. She would look at the parliamentary work of the LEFT, she would visit the lateral thinker demonstrations and would listen to those who accuse them of running “hand in hand” with Nazis.

What would she say about the LEFT party, which abstained in the vote on the suspension of protection and fundamental rights in 2020? Would she call for debate with those who protest against it as lateral thinkers or would she also make them indiscutable as “covidiots”, “corona deniers” and Nazi henchmen? 150 years later, would she be willing to understand the motives, thoughts and reflections of the lateral thinkers as “all the invigorating, salutary and purifying of political freedom”?

Rosa Luxemburg would certainly not share some or many of the lateral thinkers. She had not meant this with the” freedom of dissenters " in 1918 either. She was concerned that the discussion with this is the condition for the fact that the healing and purifying of such a process can unfold its effect.

And there is something else that is remarkable for Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary thinking: she admits to herself and others to commit an “error,” a “misstep.” She knows that the truth, the right, does not belong to any party or its critics. She committed them herself or could not prevent them.

Such errors or missteps are in their understanding not the end of a revolutionary movement, but “fruitful” – on one condition: there is an awareness of the possibility of errors and the necessity of admitting errors to oneself, without any privilege whatsoever:

“The audacious acrobat overlooks ( … ) that the only subject to whom this role of leader has now fallen is the mass ego of the working class, which insists on being allowed to make its own mistakes and to learn historical dialectic itself. And finally, let us say openly among ourselves: mistakes made by a truly revolutionary working-class movement are historically immeasurably more fruitful and valuable than the infallibility of the very best ‘Central Committee’.” (Rosa Luxemburg: Organisationsfragen der russischen Sozialdemokratie, in: dies.: Collected Works, Vol. 1/2, Berlin 1970, p. 444)

It would be worth more than an attempt to make this great legacy of Rosa Luxemburg fruitful for today, to translate it into our time. So we could go through point by point where the “freedom of dissenters” has to become the measure of things so that the way we deal with quarrels and differences makes us attractive, rather than making the barrel overflow.

This would certainly please Rosa Luxemburg – without really speaking on her behalf – more than letting her rest in this long-ago time.