Introduction: Remembering Karl Liebknecht
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.