The political differences between Rosa Luxemburg and Eduard Bernstein have something to do with differences in temperament.  Luxemburg’s keen sensitivity to human suffering and identification with victims and outcasts, her unflagging faith in the capacity of ordinary people to govern themselves and shape their own destinies, were evident to those who knew her.   She described herself as capable of “setting a prairie on fire.”

Eduard Bernstein, although he too was appalled by the exploitation and misery that capitalism causes, was known to his colleagues for his belief in the power of compromise and reconciliation, even across the boundaries of social class.  “Despite the existence of sharp divisions and hostility between political parties,” Bernstein says, “it would be a mistake to rigidly separate parties or classes by ‘Chinese Walls.’”  In the Reichstag he patiently mediated conflicts among his colleagues, seeking common ground to advance progressive causes and fight fascism.

These different approaches to politics express not only temperamental differences between these two individuals,  however, but their different life histories as well.  Bernstein had lived for a decade in London, where he befriended Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of revolutionary Marxism.  But Bernstein perceived that their anticipation of the decline and fall of capitalism was not coming true.  He perceived as well that in England improvements in workers’ rights and political freedom could be peacefully and gradually won.   Throwing himself into social democratic politics, he came to believe that capitalism could be made more humane, and might even be made to evolve into socialism — in Germany as in England, evolution, not revolution, would move humanity forward.

In the company of George Bernard Shaw, Bernstein attended the founding of the “Independent Labour Party” in 1893 in Bradford England.  The party’s spirited optimism is shown in this mural on the side of a theater in Bradford.  The party was formed following the defeat of a 4-month strike at Bradford’s Manningham Mills.

Shaw with students at an Independent Labour Party summer school

The key to the success of the ILP was that it was a “big tent,” open to people of diverse political persuasions. You could be a Marxist, an evangelical Methodist, a Fabian gradualist, even a Burkean conservative, and still be welcome in the Party. This model of openness and diversity is one that Bernstein would support upon his return to Germany.

Luxemburg’s experience of growing up in Poland was a very different one.  In 1863, a Polish uprising against Russian domination had been brutally crushed.  Thousands died in battle, and thousands were deported to Siberia.  Whole villages and towns were burned down.  The brutality of Russian soldiers was condemned throughout Europe.

“Poland 1863″, by Jan Matejko.

Soldiers supervise a blacksmith who makes shackles to place on a woman’s wrists.  She represents Poland.   In the aftermath of the failed uprising, captives passively await deportation to Siberia.

Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer J.P. Nettl notes a widespread sense among Poles that “only the overthrow of Tsarism could end the unsatisfactory system, that reform or persuasion was hopeless because the government was not amenable to agreed change.”   As a teenager Luxemburg joined a left-wing party and helped to organize a general strike.  This led to the violent suppression of the party, including the execution of four of its leaders.

In Eastern Europe, Luxemburg believed, only revolution held the potential to overthrow Tsarist oppression.  In Germany too, it seemed to her, establishing a just and peaceful social order would require radical transformation, not reformist “politics as usual.”