Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland in 1871, the fifth child born into a Jewish family. The family settled in Warsaw where the young Rosa attended school. Luxemburg was politically active by the age of 15, one of her first acts being to help organise a strike.
This early political activity began a schooling in covert socialist activity, as the strike was savagely repressed and four of its leaders shot and killed. Luxemburg along with other Polish socialists met and organised in secret, firstly in the Proletariat Party and later the Polish Socialist Party.
Luxemburg fled Poland in 1889 to escape imprisonment for her political activity. She went to Zurich, where she was able to study at one of the few European universities to admit women at that time. Here she met and discussed with fellow socialists from Poland and Russia; during this time important theoretical differences on the question of the right of nations to self determination emerged between herself and other leading socialist theorists including Lenin.
Poland had been the subject of violent partition in 1795 and Warsaw was part of Poland subject to autocratic Russian rule; the rest of the Polish nation was divided between Germany and Austria. The subjugation of Poland pushed the Polish Socialist Party into a strong nationalist stance, arguing that a victory for Polish independence was crucial in destabilising the Russian autocracy.
Luxemburg reacted strongly against the nationalist tendencies within the PSP , denouncing them as harmful in the struggle against capitalism. She believed that the struggle for national independence could not succeed and would ally working-class forces with the national bourgeoisies. To the right of nations to self-determination Luxemburg counterposed the direct struggle for working-class socialism. Although she would write that national oppression roused greater revolt than any purely economic question, she argued that proposing anything more than autonomy for Polish section of the Russian realm was diversionary and in practice she downplayed the significance of the national question. She remained intractable on this point.
Lenin and other leading figures in the international left felt Luxemburg’s position reflected an overreaction to national chauvinism inside the PSP. But her position formed the basis of her criticism of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and their policy of allowing subjugated nations the right to secede from Soviet Russia; it was also the issue over which she split from the PSP.
In 1893, along with Leo Jogiches, Julian Marchlewski and Adolf Warszawski, Luxemburg founded the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (the Marxists of the time called themselves Social Democrats). This remained a small organisation until 1917 after which it was transformed into the Polish Communist Party.
Despite living in Germany from 1898, Luxemburg remained a leading theoretician for the Polish socialists and returned to Warsaw in 1905 during the first Russian revolution, as it spread to Russian-ruled Poland too. She was jailed there.
Along with the Bolsheviks, Luxemburg wanted the leadership of the revolution to be taken by the working class and was deeply inspired by the mass political activity of the workers’ movement in 1905. She wrote about the mass strike in order to try and to turn the German Social Democrats (SPD) from their more cautious approach towards potentially revolutionary mass political activity.
Luxemburg was the first left figure to openly oppose Karl Kautsky — the German socialist leader known as “the pope of Marxism” — and polemicised against him and August Bebel on this issue, emphasising the role of working-class mass action in developing a revolutionary movement. She argued such movements have a spontaneity. They cannot necessarily be called into being or controlled by leaders of a movement, nor should they be measured against schemes sketched in advance. Luxemburg was scathing of those with a “pedantic conception which would unfold great popular movements according to plan and recipe”(The Mass Strike, 1906).
Lenin would later praise Luxemburg’s prescience: “Rosa Luxemburg was right. She realised long ago that Kautsky was a time server”. Her consistent positioning of herself against more right-wing elements in the German socialist movement marked out Rosa Luxemburg as such an important political figure.
Luxemburg first established herself as a notable figure in the Germany movement in 1900 with a polemic against Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein wrote a series of articles which set out the case for the achieveing socialism through reforms and argued against the need for revolutionary change. This provoked debate throughout the German socialist movement; in 1900 Rosa Luxemburg wrote Reform or Revolution as a polemic against Bernstein, arguing that:
“The opportunist theory in the Party, the theory formulated by Bernstein, is nothing else than an unconscious attempt to assure predominance to the petty-bourgeois elements that have entered our Party, to change the policy and aims of our Party in their direction. The question of reform or revolution, of the final goal and the movement, is basically, in another form, but the question of the petty-bourgeois or proletarian character of the labour movement.” (Reform or Revolution, 1900).
Through the early 1900s Luxemburg was engaged in a continuous struggle from the left against a reformist current in the German SPD; she was concerned about bureaucratisation and control by right wing elements of the trade union movement. She was allied in the SPD with revolutionaries such as Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin.
Zetkin was the key organiser of the Party’s women’s movement, which organised hundreds of thousands of working class women in political activity. The SDP produced a women’s paper, Die Gleichheit, and was responsible for organising the first ever international women’s day on 8 March 1911. Whilst Rosa Luxemburg supported the women’s section, speaking at rallies and meetings and writing on the question of working women’s suffrage, this was not a predominant part of her political activity.
It has been argued that Luxemburg saw the work of organising a women’s movement as a distraction from the struggle for socialism. However, it is more likely that this was simply not her main sphere of interest, and that her time was taken up with other matters.
To the world the German Social Democratic Party looked a mighty force, and under the leadership of revolutionaries like Luxemburg it might have proved to be so. But the advent of World War One put the leadership of that movement to the test, one which they failed miserably.
The leadership, apologised for in the end by none other than Kautsky, voted in Parliament to support financing the German war effort. Luxemburg’s writings on this question illustrate what a deep blow this was to her and to the prospects for the German workers movement.
“Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth — there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spick and span and moral, with pretence to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law — but the ravening beast, the witches' sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.
“In the midst of this witches’ sabbath a catastrophe of world-historical proportions has happened: International Social Democracy has capitulated.” (The Junius Pamphlet, 1915)
In response Luxemburg continued to organise, founding the Spartacist League alongside Liebknecht and Zetkin. Luxemburg wrote The Junius Pamphlet from prison, a founding text of the Spartacist League.
In 1917 Luxemburg welcomed the Russian revolution wholeheartedly. Still imprisoned at the time, she recognised the need to spread the revolution and continued to organise with this aim in mind.
Much has been made of Luxemburg’s criticisms of the Bolshevik Party in relation to issues such as removing the right to vote from the rich, the dissolution of the constituent assembly, the right of nations to secede, the distribution of land to the peasants, and democracy. Her name has been used to support the arguments, including by anarchists, of those who would oppose much else or everything about the Russian revolution.
Rosa Luxemburg did make criticisms, some of which are still debatable. But on the national question, for example, she was plain wrong.
Luxemburg never once questioned the validity of the revolution or considered Lenin and Trotsky as anything but socialist comrades. She wrote: “Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world…. This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism… In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future every where belongs to Bolshevism.”
In 1918, as the First World War ended, Germany was thrown into turmoil and revolutionary revolt. Workers’ councils spread throughout Germany and on 19 November 1918 came the proclamation of the German republic. The SPD formed a government. Luxemburg, released from jail, set about building the German Communist Party (KPD). This time she found herself in conflict not with right-wing elements but with ultra-lefts who did not want to participate in elections to the newly promised national assembly. Luxemburg emphasised the need to win the majority — including in the countryside — and not just a revolutionary minority. That meant not only fighting the class struggle in workplaces and communities, but building support though elections.
1919 saw strikes and mass protests. Sections of the KPD and other leftists wanted to stage an uprising in January 1919. Luxemburg argued against such a move, believing it to be premature. The so-called Spartacist uprising was brutally repressed by the government of Friedrich Ebert, leader of the SDP, and the Freikorps, far-right paramilitary groups. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested and on 15 January 1919 they were murdered.
Rosa Luxemburg remains one of the key political figures in socialist history for many reasons. She was an independent critical thinker, a committed Marxist and an unshakeable revolutionary committed to working class democracy and socialism.
She showed courage and tenacity in the face of the worst obstacles and opposition. She was fully engaged in the struggle for ideas, and many of her writings have value today. Rosa Luxemburg was an inspirational woman and words from one of her last pamphlets ring as true today as they did then
“Out of all this bloody confusion, this yawning abyss, there is no help, no escape, no rescue other than socialism… Down with the wage system! That is the slogan of the hour! Instead of wage labour and class rule there must be collective labour. The means of production must cease to be the monopoly of a single class; they must become the common property of all. No more exploiters and exploited!…
“In place of the employers and their wage slaves, free working comrades! Labour as nobody's torture, because everybody's duty!…
“Only in such a society are national hatred and servitude uprooted. Only when such a society has become reality will the earth no more be stained by murder. Only then can it be said: This war was the last.
“In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity. The words of the Communist Manifesto flare like a fiery mene-tekel [biblical sign of impending doom] above the crumbling bastions of capitalist society: Socialism or barbarism!”