Nazim Hikmet, the beloved Turkish communist poet and writer who was arrested by the founder of modern Turkey, was born 120 years ago today. He was often victimized by the Kemalist state and was detained for a decade in the period 1940-50 because of his radical and communist ideology. Legend has it that Hikmet had fled his native country in a boat and was picked up by a ship. The captain inquired if he could certify that he was indeed the legendary communist poet. The poet grinned and directed his attention to a poster in the captain’s room, which had his image upon it. Hikmet passed away in Moscow in 1963, more than 50 years ago. His body is still exiled. I remember one of his iconic poems, ‘Invitation’:
Galloping from Far Asia and jutting out
into the Mediterranean like a mare’s head
this country is ours.
Wrists in blood, teeth clenched, feet bare
and this soil spreading like a silk carpet,
this hell, this paradise is ours.
Shut the gates of plutocracy, don’t let them open again,
annihilate man’s servitude to man,
this invitation is ours.
To live like a tree single and at liberty
and brotherly like the trees of a forest,
this yearning is ours.
Hikmet’s fellow-communist, the German activist and theoretician Rosa Luxemburg was indifferently assassinated in Berlin 103 years ago today. She and her companion Karl Liebknecht were chased jointly but murdered individually on the same day by assassins who were not Adolf Hitler’s minions; rather they belonged to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), an organization whose revolutionary left faction both the slain comrades had influenced since long.
The first great war of the 20th century precipitated a crisis. The majority in the SPD surrendered to the seductions of loyalty to the nation-state. Liebknecht was the lone voice from the SPD in the Reichstag, which rebelled against this position, and was called out as an enemy of the state for his clear-sightedness. Luxemburg too saw through the moral depravity of her party’s standpoint.
Luxemburg, who was an outsider on both counts as a citizen of the Russian Empire in that she was a Pole and a Jew, had ensconced herself at the forefront of communist politics in Prussia; she was totally dismayed and shocked by the tendency of her party. Despite Lenin’s substantial disagreements had with his fellow-theoretician of imperialism and capitalism, he was at one with her on expressing outrage at this development. His prescription of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ for czarist Russia bore similarities with Luxemburg’s own solution of transforming thee imperialist wars into an internecine conflict.
Her principled position on the war landed her in jail for most of its run. From very much in jail, she ruminated on the twin revolutions in Moscow in 1917, and was a sympathetic but critical observer, criticizing its dictatorial, bureaucratic attitudes but admitting that Lenin and his companions had precious little time in which to prepare to take power, without any other revolutionary insurrections breaking out in any other European state.
Come the November 1918 ceasefire, and Germany was ripe for revolution, thanks largely to an uprising from below by soldiers, sailors and workers. Luxemburg finally walked free from jail, a short time following the release of Liebknecht; both played the major role in establishing the Communist Party of Germany.
Laying the foundation-stone of the party, Luxemburg re-emphasized her position that power without the people was a mirage. However even she could not help but support an uprising, which erupted in Berlin in the very first week of 1919, though she theoretically disapproved of it.
As Luxemburg’s ex-student, the Chancellor Friedrich Ebert, sent in more military contingents, the inopportune insurrection was put down. Luxemburg witnessed the catastrophe but did not live to see or theorize its consequences.
While she lived, she had a love-hate relationship with her comrades and contemporaries, given her outspoken and undogmatic approach. She was not only an influential activist but also a mesmerizing public speaker. More charitable writers like Franz Mehring have rated her as the greatest Marxist thinker of her time, not only above Lenin but Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, largely believed to be the successors of the Marx-Engels legacy once.
She was not averse to picking up arguments even with Friedrich Engels! She theoretically and practically opposed both capitalism and imperialism, as well as patriotism, not forgetting to castigate its Jewish variant.
It is an open question how her views on socialism might have altered had she lived on, but one has to agree with the epitaph which her fellow-communist German poet Bertolt Brecht wrote for his slain comrade where he lamented the disappearance of ‘Red Rosa’, as well as her last resting place; and that she paid the price for siding with the poor, for which she was killed by the rich.
Also on January 15 today, incidentally a decade after Luxemburg was assassinated, the greatest ethical paragon of the United States in the last century, namely Martin Luther King (MLK) was born. He was the young minister who had led the civil rights struggle in the US.
He had been living a charmed life though the angel of death had been pursuing him since 1955 when he spearheaded a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama after the detention of Rosa Parks for declining to surrender her set for a white passenger.
Then in 1963, King achieved his finest moment and a historic milestone for the civil rights movement when in front of a huge crowd covering the expansive plaza of the American capital, the reverend made his grand ‘I have a dream’ speech at the March on Washington and dreamed together with his people:
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low…
Soon enough, the civil rights bills which had been set in motion by the Jonh.F Kennedy government were made into a law by the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, King standing in tow.
At that time, the FBI had proclaimed King as the most hostile member of his race and he was tailed by a number of spies watching his every move, round the clock.
King carried on censuring ethnic discrimination and the war in Vietnam, which converted Black people into food for powder, and unhesitantly stated that the US was ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.’
In his speech ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’ in 1967, four years after his milestone oration in Washington, King opposed the US war in Vietnam.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”
He became the object of great condemnation among civil rights pioneers, the citizenry and the media. US President Johnson rescinded a meeting with King at the White House.
In 1968, a year later, an assassin’s bullet cracked open his head.
In many ways, the lives and struggles of Nazim Hikmet, Rosa Luxemburg and Martin Luther King helped define the 20th century. But the sad, bitter truth is that in their own countries of origin, Hikmet, Luxemburg and King remain largely outsiders. Turkey and the US have seen more of the barbarism of the populist authoritarianism in the 21st century in the shape of the Erdogan and Trump regimes, while the German left which Luxemburg did so much to unite remains divided, with Luxemburg’s party, the SPD, having no time for the ideas or even a commemoration of one of its outstanding leaders. Be that as it may the phrase which Luxemburg memorably borrowed from Karl Kautsky ‘socialism or barbarism’ remains very much on the agenda, and a realistic choice in developing countries like Pakistan. While the spirit of Dr King carries on not only through movements of our own time like ‘black lives matter’ but also the struggles of Ahed Tamimi, our very own Malala Yousafzai and Gabriael Boric, who completed a stunning transformation from a student leader campaigning for free quality public education a decade ago to the new president of Chile last month.