Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919)


“Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.”

Born on March 5th, 1871 in Zamoshc of Congress Poland, Rosa Luxemburg was born into a Jewish family, the youngest of five children. In 1889, at 18 years old, Luxemburg’s revolutionary agitation forced her to move to Zürich, Switzerland, to escape imprisonment. While in Zürich, Luxemburg continued her revolutionary activities from abroad, while studying political economy and law; receiving her doctorate in 1898. She met with many Russian Social Democrats (at a time before the R.S.D.L.P. split); among them the leading members of the party: Georgy Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod. It was not long before Luxemburg voiced sharp theoretical differences with the Russian party, primarily over the issue of Polish self-determination: Luxemburg believed that self-determination weakened the international Socialist movement, and helped only the bourgeoisie to strengthen their rule over newly independent nations. Luxemburg split with both the Russian and Polish Socialist Party over this issue, who believed in the rights of Russian national minorities to self-determination. In opposition, Luxemburg helped create the Polish Social Democratic Party.

During this time Luxemburg met her life-long companion Leo Jogiches, who was head of the Polish Socialist Party. While Luxemburg was the speaker and theoretician of the party, Jogiches complimented her as the organiser of the party. The two developed an intense personal and political relationship throughout the rest of their lives.

Luxemburg left Zürich for Berlin in 1898, and joined the German Social Democractic Labour Party. Quickly after joining the party, Luxemburg’s most vibrant revolutionary agitation and writings began to form. Expressing the central issues of debate in the German Social Democracy at the time, she wrote Reform or Revolution in 1900; against Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism of Marxist theory. Luxemburg explained:

“His theory tends to counsel us to renounce the social transformation, the final goal of Social-Democracy and, inversely, to make of social reforms, the means of the class struggle, its aim. Bernstein himself has very clearly and characteristically formulated this viewpoint when he wrote: “The Final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.”

While Luxemburg supported reformist activity (as the means of class struggle), the aim of these reforms was a complete revolution. She stressed that endless reforms would continually support the ruling bourgeois, long past the time a proletarian revolution could have begun to build a Socialist society. Luxemburg, along with Karl Kautsky, helped to prevent this revisionism of Marxist theory in the German Socialist party. (Further Reading: 1904: Social Democracy and Parliamentarism)

By the 1905 Revolution in Russia, Luxemburg refocused her attention to the Socialist movement in the Russian Empire, explaining the great movement the Russian proletariat had begun:

“For on this day the Russian proletariat burst on the political stage as a class for the first time; for the first time the only power which historically is qualified and able to cast Tsarism into the dustbin and to raise the banner of civilization in Russia and everywhere has appeared on the scene of action.”

Revolution in Russia

Luxemburg stood by the Marxist theory of the Russian proletariat leading a Socialist revolution; in opposition to the Russian Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary parties, but in support of the Bolshevik party. Luxemburg moved to Warsaw to aid the Russian revolutionary uprising, and was imprisoned for her activities.

In 1906, Luxemburg began to strongly advocate her theory of The Mass Strike as the most important revolutionary weapon of the proletariat. This continual drive became a major point of contention in the German Social Democratic party, primarily opposed by August Bebel and Karl Kautsky. For such passionate and relentless agitation, Luxemburg earned the nickname “Bloody Rosa.”

Before the first World War, Luxemburg wrote The Accumulation of Capital in 1913; a work explaining the capitalist movement towards imperialism. With the begining of World War I, Luxemburg stood ardently against the German Social-Democratic Parties’ social-chauvinistic stand; supporting German aggression and annexations of other nations. Allied with Karl Liebknecht, Luxemburg left the Social Democractic party, and helped form the Internationale Group, which soon became the Spartacus League, in opposition of Socialist national chauvinism, agitating instead that German soldiers turn their weapons against their own government and overthrow it.

For this revolutionary agitation, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested and imprisoned. While in prison, Luxemburg wrote the Junius Pamphlet, which became the theoretical foundation of the Spartacus League. Also while in prison, Luxemburg wrote on the Russian Revolution, most famously in her book: The Russian Revolution, where she warns of the dictatorial powers of the Bolshevik party. Here Luxemburg explains her views on the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat:

“Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class — that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.

While Luxemburg attacked the Soviet government being dominated by the strong hand of the Bolshevik party, she recognised the Civil War that was raging through Russia and the present need for such a government:

“It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions. The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.”

Luxemburg later opposed the newly formed Soviet government’s efforts to come to Peace on all fronts, by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany. (Further reading: The Russian Tragedy)

In November, 1918, the German government reluctantly released Luxemburg from prision, whereupon she immediately began again revolutionary agitation. A month later, Luxemburg and Liebknecht founded the German Communist Party, while armed conflicts were raging in the streets of Berlin in support of the Spartacus League.

On January 15, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Wilhelm Pieck; the leaders of the German Communist Party, were arrested and taken in for questioning at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin. While what happened is not known, save for the last sentence, one account is that they were told they were to be relocated; German soldiers escorted Luxemburg and Liebknecht out of the building, knocking them unconscious as they left. Pieck managed to escape, while the unconscious bodies of Luxemburg and Liebknecht were quietly driven away in a German military jeep. They were shot, and thrown into a river.

With the finest leaders of the German Communist movement murdered, the gates of rising German fascism opened unhindered.


Portrait of Rosa Luxemburg

1894: What Are the Origins of May Day?
1896: The Polish Question at the International Congress in London
1896: Social Democracy and the National Struggles in Turkey
1898: Opportunism and the art of the possible
1898: Speeches to Stuttgart Congress
1899: A question of tactics
1899: Speech to the Hanover Congress
1899: The Dreyfus Affair and the Millerand Case
1899: Militia and Militarism
1900: In Defense of Nationality
1900: Reform or Revolution
1901: The Socialist Crisis in France
1901: To the National Council of the French Worker’s Party
1902: Martinique
1902: The Eight Hour Day at the Party Congress
1903: An anti-clerical policy of Socialism
1903: In Memory of the Proletarian Party
1903: Marxist Theory and the Proletariat
1903: Stagnation and Progress of Marxism
1903: Lassalle and the Revolution
1904: In the Storm
1904: Social Democracy and Parliamentarism
1904: Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy [aka Leninism or Marxism?]
1905: The Polish Question and the Socialist Movement
1905: The Revolution in Russia
1905: Socialism and the Churches
1906: The Mass Strike
1906: Riot and Revolution
1906: Blanquism and Social Democracy
1907: Two Methods of Trade-Union Policy
1908: 25th anniversary of Marx’s death
1908: The First May as a Day of Working-Class Struggle
1908: On the Question of Budget Approval
1908: The Party School
1909: The National Question
1909: Revolutionary Hangover
1909: Special Problems of Poland
1910: The Next Step
1910: Theory & Practice [A polemic against Comrade Kautsky’s theory of the Mass Strike]
1911: Concerning Morocco
1911: Peace Utopias
1911: Mass Action
1911: An Amusing Misunderstanding
1911: To the Unity Conference of the Socialist Organisations in Manchester
1912: Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle
1912: The Fallen Women of Liberalism
1912: What Now?
1913: The Idea of May Day on the March
1913: Down With Reformist Illusions—Hail the Revolutionary Class Struggle!
1913: The Political Mass Strike
1913: Lassalle’s Legacy
1913: The Accumulation of Capital
1915: The Accumulation of Capital: An Anti-Critique
1915: Rebuilding the International
1915: The Junius Pamphlet (The Crisis of Social Democracy)
1915: Theses on the Tasks of International Social-Democracy
1916: Either/Or
1916: Dog Politics
1917: The Old Mole
1918: The Russian Revolution
1918: Life of Korolenko
1918: The Russian tragedy
1918: Oh! How – German is this Revolution!
1918: The Beginning
1918: A Duty of Honor (Alternate Translation: Against Capital Punishment)
1918: The National Assembly
1918: A Call to the Workers of the World
1918: The Acheron in Motion
1918: Five Letters from Prison
1916–1918: Letters from Prison to Sophie Liebknecht
1918: The Socialisation of Society (Alternate Translation: What is Bolshevism?)
1918: What does the Spartacus League Want?
1918: The Elections to the National Assembly
1918: Our Program and the Political Situation (Alternate Translation: On the Spartacus Programme)
1919: What are the Leaders Doing?
1919: House of Cards
1919: Order Prevails in Berlin
After Death: What is Economics? (PF)

Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919)