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Rosa Luxemburg’s remarkable, revolutionary life for democracy and socialism

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Tomás Várnagy,

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Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg together in Mannheim, 1910.

Rosa Luxemburg (1871, Zamość, Poland–1919, Berlin, Germany) is one of the most fascinating and imposing revolutionary figures in modern European history and, at the same time, one of the most discussed to date. Her friends and adversaries emphasize the penetrating acuity of her intelligence, her great willpower, her lively and impatient temperament, her strong combative nature, and her great moral rigour.

Tomás Várnagy is a professor of Political Theory I (Classical), Political Theory II (Modern), and Transition from Stalinism to Pluralism in Eastern Central Europe at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, and the author of Nostalgias del Este. Ensayos centroeuropeos and “Proletarios de todos los países... ¡perdonadnos!”: O sobre el humor político clandestino en los regímenes de tipo soviético y el papel deslegitimador del chiste en Europa central y oriental (1917-1991). This article is based on his presentation at “Rosa Luxemburg at 150: Revisiting Her Life and Legacy”, a conference hosted by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and the International Rosa Luxemburg Society on 4–5 March 2021.

She was born in Poland in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, the youngest of five children in a cultured and relatively wealthy Jewish family. Intelligent and brilliant in her studies, independent and rebellious in spirit, she was involved in socialist political activity from her early youth. When she was a little girl, as a typical cultured Central European, she spoke three languages: Russian, Polish, and German. She became an activist in the Proletariat Party, founded in 1882 (almost two decades before the founding of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), in which she organized and led striking workers. In 1886, four of its leaders were executed, while others were locked up and exiled.

Luxemburg then moved to Zurich in 1889, the most important centre of Polish and Russian emigration, to avoid arrest by the Polish police. There she studied mathematics, natural sciences, and political economy, and received her doctorate with a thesis on industrial development in Poland. In Switzerland she met Georgi Plekhanov (1857–1918) and Leo Jogiches (1867–1919), the latter becoming her partner of many years. She was also an active element in the political life of the revolutionary exiles of the Russian empire.

In her opposition to the nationalism of the Polish Socialist Party (PSP), in 1894 Luxemburg came to lead, together with Leo Jogiches, the continuation of Proletariat—first as the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP), and then adding Lithuania (SDKPiL). Jogiches was the chief organizer and Luxemburg was the most capable voice and intellect.

The PSP socialists wanted the independence of Poland and even Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95) had considered it favourably. However, Rosa Luxemburg questioned the PSP, accusing it of nationalistic tendencies and of diverting workers from the class struggle. She rejected, from the point of view of absolute socialist internationalism, the programme of the reinstatement of an independent Polish state. She took a different stance from the old masters and opposed the slogan “Independence for Poland”, and in the process came to be accused of being an agent of Tsarism.

Reform or Revolution

In 1898 Rosa Luxemburg moved to Germany, standing out in the important debates within European socialism. She was one of the main contributors to the most important Marxist theoretical newspaper of the time, Die Neue Zeit. She even criticized the editor, Karl Kautsky (1854–1938), considered the “Pope of Marxism”.

The movement in Germany was divided into two tendencies: a reformist and a revolutionary one. Germany had enjoyed increasing prosperity since the crisis of 1873, the standard of living of the workers had been improving, and the unions and cooperatives had become stronger. All this caused the bureaucracy of these movements, together with the growing parliamentary representation of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), to move away from revolution and to lean towards gradual change and reformism. The main spokesman for this trend was a disciple of Friedrich Engels, Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932), who between 1886–89 wrote a series of articles on Problems of Socialism, openly attacking the principles of Marxism.

In the revisionist controversy, Rosa Luxemburg wrote Reform or Revolution, which is considered the best general Marxist response of the Second International to reformism. Her position was that as long as capitalism lasted, its crises and contradictions would not be softened, and to suggest something else, as Bernstein had done, was to break with the fundamental core of Marxism, denying the objective bases of the socialist project. The labour movement had to fight for reforms through trade unions and parliamentary activity, but as this was not enough to abolish the capitalist relations of production, the ultimate goal should be the seizing of power through revolution.

Controversy with Lenin

Luxemburg intervened in the dispute between Vladimir I. Lenin (1870–1924) and the Mensheviks, a dispute which originated at the Congress of 1903. Luxemburg criticized Lenin for his conception of a highly centralized party vanguard; according to Luxemburg, it was an attempt to put the working class under tutelage. Her arguments—characteristic of all her work—comprised factors such as independent initiative, the workers’ activity, their ability to learn through their own experience and mistakes, and the need for a grassroots democratic organization.

In Organizational Problems of Social Democracy, Luxemburg, like Trotsky at that time, disagreed with Lenin that the Party should be an organization of professional revolutionaries; on the contrary, she considered that the revolutionary party should encompass the working class organized as a whole. She did not underestimate the role of the party as providing political leadership, but denied its role as the daily organizer of class struggle and affirmed: “let's speak clearly. Historically, the mistakes made by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the most cunning Central Committee”.[1]

Even Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), in Our Political Tasks (Part II), a 1904 text which was contrary to the Leninist position, prophesies and predicts in a famous paragraph that “Lenin’s methods lead to this: “…the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee”.[2] Years later, in June 1932, Trotsky dismissed his earlier argument by stating: “If one were to take the disagreements between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg in their entirety, then historical correctness is unconditionally on Lenin’s side”.[3]

On the question of nationalities in Poland, Luxemburg had other reasons for disagreeing with Lenin: although she deplored national oppression, like any other type of oppression, unlike Lenin she neither supported the independence of Poland, nor the law of nations to self-determination. She was arrested and imprisoned in Germany in 1904 for her political activities and for “insulting the Kaiser”.

The Revolution of 1905

Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg had a common response to the 1905 Revolution: both considered a bourgeois revolution in Russia necessary, carried out under the leadership and with the methods of struggle of the proletariat. She considered that the mass actions of the Russian workers would be of international importance, stimulating German Social Democracy from the far left wing of the party.

In Luxemburg’s Strike of the Masses, Party and Unions, she proposed the general strike as the form par excellence of the proletarian revolution.[4] The mass strike was the spontaneous expression of the creative power of the masses, the elemental form of the revolution, and an antidote to bureaucratic inertia, uniting political and economic struggle and, together with far-reaching demands, could become a potential challenge to the capitalist order.

Luxemburg was arrested and imprisoned in 1906, in what was then Russian Poland, and released after four months due to health problems. She met Lenin in Finland, beginning for both of them a phase of positive and fertile collaboration. She was then later arrested and imprisoned again for two months in Germany for her political activities and for “inciting violence”.

At the Second Congress of International Socialism in Stuttgart in 1907, she spoke on behalf of the Russian and Polish parties, developing a revolutionary position in the face of war and militarism, and presented the resolution—which was approved—that all European workers’ parties must unite to avoid war.

1910: Break with Kautsky

In the same Germany in which Luxemburg lived and militated, she attacked German militarism and imperialism when the possibility of war loomed—a war which could have been avoided with a general strike that united all workers, but which was a tactic that Kautsky opposed. Luxemburg broke with him in 1910, as he defended a cautious, purely electoral policy on the part of the party, which had become a conservative, suffocating, and reformist apparatus. The SPD was divided into three tendencies: the reformists who progressively adopted imperialist policies, the centrist Marxists (represented by Kautsky) who maintained verbal radicalism but whose methods of struggle were limited to the parliamentary, and the revolutionary wing of Rosa Luxemburg.

Luxemburg began teaching Marxism and economics at the SPD party school in Berlin. One of her students, Friedrich Ebert (1871–1925), would go on to become party leader and the first President of the Weimar Republic. The SPD was a powerful and imposing party: it was the great party of the Second International. While the Russians and Poles barely brought together a handful of men, the SPD had enormous influence and power, growing from its founding in 1875 to its moral and political suicide at the beginning of World War I. In 1912 it obtained 4.25 million votes, amounting to 35 percent of the total, and so became the largest bloc in the Reichstag, with 111 deputies bringing together—as we saw—all tendencies.

As a representative of the SPD, Rosa Luxemburg went to the European socialist congresses. In Paris in 1912, she and the French socialist Jean Jaurès (1859–1914), proposed that in the event of war breaking out, the workers’ parties of Europe should declare a general strike.

In 1913 she wrote her most important theoretical work, The Accumulation of Capital, which is one of her most original contributions to Marxist economic doctrine. She argued that imperialism was the result of a competitive struggle between capitalist nations for what was left in the non-capitalist world that, when eroded, would shake capitalist relations and cause the inevitable collapse of the system.

World War I and the Russian Revolution

At the beginning of the war, Luxemburg organized demonstrations in Germany calling for conscientious objection to military service and for the refusal to obey orders, for which she was accused of “inciting disobedience against the law and order of the authorities”, and sentenced to prison. She spent most of World War I in prison, where she enthusiastically welcomed and extolled the Russian Revolution.

In 1914, out of 111 deputies, just one did not submit to SPD party discipline: Karl Liebknecht, the only vote against the war credits. The intellectual defenders of revolutionary internationalism—Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Franz Mehring (1846–1919), and Clara Zetkin (1857–1933)—met in the “Spartacus League”, denouncing in their Junius Pamphlet and other writings the patriotic and nationalist position of the SPD as a betrayal.

Luxemburg wrote The Russian Revolution in solidarity with and as an expression of sympathy towards Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks, and in support of their attempt at socialist revolution, although she retained a critical attitude towards their policies on land and nationalities over and above their restrictions on socialist democracy. She did not support the belief of the indiscriminate acceptance of everything that the Bolsheviks did in the name of the labour movement.

While she praised the October Revolution in the most vaunted terms, Luxemburg believed that an unqualified endorsement of everything the Bolsheviks did would be of no real use. According to her, the Marxist method of analysis should not accept anything that had not been subject to revolutionary criticism.

She was aware of the problems that had arisen and the international situation, which is why she wrote:

It would be asking something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we expected that under such circumstances they could ensure in advance the purest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. They have contributed, insofar as it was possible, to do so under such devilishly harsh conditions.[5]

Objective factors can lead to great errors, but there is another danger, which is when they “want to fix in an absolute theoretical system all the tactics that they are forced to adopt by fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics”. Luxemburg criticized the Bolsheviks in power on the following issues: the agrarian question, the question of nationalities, the Constituent Assembly, and the democratic rights of the workers.

I will focus only on Luxemburg’s main criticism of the Bolsheviks: that they were responsible for restricting and undermining workers’ democracy, and the tragic history of the Soviet Union proves that it was prophetically correct. She had the conviction that workers’ democracy was inseparable from the proletarian revolution and socialism. She wrote:

Social democracy is not something that begins only in the Promised Land after the foundations of the socialist economy have been created; it does not appear as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who have loyally supported a handful of authoritarian socialists in the meantime. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class power and the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the Socialist Party and is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Yes, a dictatorship of the proletariat! But this dictatorship consists in the way to apply democracy, not in its elimination … This dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a small managerial minority in the name of the class.[6]

Although Luxemburg unhesitatingly supported the dictatorship of the proletariat directed against the enemies of socialism, she argued that only full and consistent democracy could secure the power of the working class and boost its enormous potentialities. She pointed out that the Bolsheviks deviated from this conception:

The tacit assumption underlying Lenin-Trotsky’s theory of dictatorship is this: that socialist transformation is something where a ready-made formula rests absolutely in the pocket of the revolutionary party and only demands to be carried out vigorously in practice.[7]

In this deviation, Rosa Luxemburg predicted with surprising clarity what would later happen in the Soviet Union. She did this in a critique of the Bolshevik Party that is in the best traditions of Marxism and in the basic axiom of Karl Marx, that is, the ruthless critique of everything that exists. Without the broadest workers’ democracy:

socialism will be decreed from a few official offices by a dozen intellectuals … with the repression of political activity throughout the land, life in the soviets must also become more and more mutilated. Without general elections, unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly, without a free confrontation of opinions, life dies in every public institution, it becomes a mere appearance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as an active element.

Public life gradually falls into a slumber, a few dozen party leaders … lead and rule. Among them, in reality, only a dozen outstanding brains take over the leadership, and an elite of the working class are invited, from time to time, to rallies where they applaud the speeches of the leaders and unanimously approve the proposed resolutions—from the beginning a matter of cliques—a dictatorship surely, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but simply the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is to say, a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins.[8]

Luxemburg stated conclusively: “it is clear that socialism, by its very nature, cannot be decreed or introduced by use”. In her study of the Russian revolution, many of her supporters believe that they recognize the truly Marxist alternative of democratic socialism, in the face of social-democratic reformism and Bolshevik bureaucratism. It was in this context that she wrote her famous, frequently quoted phrase: “Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden” (freedom is always freedom for those who think differently), and the full paragraph reads:

Freedom only for those who support the government, only for members of a party (however numerous it may be) is not freedom at all. Freedom is always freedom for those who think differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice”, but because everything that is instructive, totalizing, and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness disappears as soon as “freedom” becomes a special privilege.[9]

Finale

Released from prison in late 1918, Luxemburg participated in the post-war German revolts and was commissioned to edit Die Rote Fahne together with Liebknecht. The collapse of capitalism offered the workers’ an alternative: on the one hand, crisis, reaction, war, final catastrophe, and barbarism, and, on the other, socialism. The active struggle for socialism was therefore urgent and necessary. According to Luxemburg, a central argument of Marxism was that the substance of this struggle was made possible by the spontaneous and self-liberating efforts of the working class without denying the need for organization, nor the importance of proper leadership.

In January 1919, thanks to the initiative of Luxemburg, Liebknecht, the Spartacus League, and other socialist and communist groups, the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) was created. Shortly after, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were brutally assassinated by right-wing officers following the repression of the aborted uprising in Berlin. For the historian Isaac Deutscher (1907–67), with this assassination the Germany of the Hohenzollerns celebrated its last triumph and the Germany of the Nazis the first.

Franz Mehring, Marx’s biographer, was not exaggerating when he designated Rosa Luxemburg as the “best brain after Marx”. However, she not only brought her brain to the working-class movement, rather she gave everything she had: her heart, her passion, her strong will, and ultimately her life. Luxemburg was, above all, a revolutionary socialist, a tireless, overwhelming, and exceptionally effective agitator. Born in the Tsarist Empire, a long-term resident of Germany, and fully active in the Polish and German labour movements, it could be said that she knew how to bring to Germany the “Russian spirit” of revolutionary action; and to Poland and Russia, she brought the “Western spirit” of confidence, democracy, and self-emancipation of the workers.

Luxemburg’s life was committed to democracy and freedom—she was an unambiguous Marxist revolutionary. As Clara Zetkin, her close friend, expressed at her funeral farewell:

Socialism was for Rosa Luxemburg a dominating passion which absorbed her whole life, a passion at once intellectual and ethical. The passion consumed her and was transformed into creative work. This rare woman had but one ambition, one task in life—to prepare for the revolution which was to open the way to Socialism. Her greatest joy, her dream, was to live to see the revolution, to take her share in its struggles. Rosa Luxemburg gave to Socialism all she had to give; no words can ever express the strength of will, the disinterestedness, and the devotion, with which she served the cause. She offered up her life on the altar of Socialism, not alone in death, but in the long days of her labours, in the hours, the weeks and the years consecrated to the fight. Thus has she acquired the right to demand of others that they, too, shall sacrifice their all for Socialism—everything, life not excepted. She was the sword, she was the fire, of the revolution.[10]

Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) wrote the following epitaph for Rosa Luxemburg:

And now red Rosa has disappeared,
Where she lies nobody knows.
To the poor the truth she taught
The rich hunted and out of this world she was brought.[11]

Interpretations

There is great misinformation about Rosa Luxemburg and among the reasons for the insufficient level of research is the lack of publication of her letters and writings (especially in the Spanish language). In 1922 Lenin lashed out at the German Communist Party for not having published her work. In 1923 her complete works began to be published in nine volumes, of which only three had appeared until the 1980s. It was only in the Moscow Institute of Studies on Marxism-Leninism that there could be found more than one thousand of Luxemburg’s unpublished letters.

Her work was interpreted as a kind of political fatalism, according to her theory of the inevitable capitalist collapse and an unlimited faith in the spontaneity of the masses. However, this would be misrepresenting or caricaturing it, which would lead to the accusations of “rightist deviations”, “spontaneism”, and “ultra-leftism”.

The main question regarding the interpretation of Luxemburg’s work is whether she or Lenin was the true representative and legitimate follower of revolutionary Marxism, or rather whose ideas and theories show the correct path for the realization of socialism.

Regarding the interpretations, we can distinguish three fundamental directions: the first considers that, basically, there was no insurmountable opposition between Lenin and Luxemburg; the second, dominant in the Soviet Bloc, regarded her as a genius leader of the German proletariat, but all ideas that did not coincide with Lenin’s were rejected. György Lukács (1885–1971) and Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938) criticized “erroneous” theories in the 1920s and, finally, Joseph Stalin (1878–1953), in Problems of the History of Bolshevism, considered that Rosa Luxemburg built a “utopian and semi-Menshevik” system that led to the “permanent revolution”, accusing her of being Trotskyist.[12]

The third interpretation is that Luxemburg was not only an exemplary personality but also the true creator of “democratic communism”, opposed both to Marxist-Leninist dogmatism and to social-democratic opportunism. She was therefore the proponent of a truly Marxist and humane socialism which surpassed undemocratic Communism and non-socialist bourgeois democracy, providing a third way towards the authentic realization of socialist democracy.

Among the most prominent representatives of this latter orientation were Karl Korsch (1886–1961), the German dissident Robert Havemann (1910–82) who wanted to renew the KPD, Alexander Dubček (1921–92) in the Prague Spring, the Polish philosopher and critic Leszek Kolakowski (1927–2009), and a whole new Left that vindicates the life and work of Rosa Luxemburg. Undoubtedly, its historical significance, at the beginning of the twentieth century, consisted in having collaborated in the renewal of Marxism independently of Lenin and without his tendency to a dogmatic monism that led to the unfortunate consequences of Stalinism.

Bibliography

Bertolt Brecht, “Epitaph”, available at https://revolutionarydemocracy.org/rdv15/brecht.htm. Retrieved 16 March, 2020.

Luxemburgo [Luxemburg], Rosa: Problemas organizativos de la socialdemocracia [Organizational Problems of Social Democracy], in Obras escogidas [Selected Works], vol. 1. Buenos Aires: Pluma, 1976. All Spanish to English language translations are ours.

Luxemburgo [Luxemburg], Rosa: Huelga de masas, partido y sindicato [Strike of the Masses, Party and Unions], in Obras escogidas [Selected Works], vol. 1. Buenos Aires: Pluma, 1976. All Spanish to English language translations are ours.

Stalin, J.: “Sobre algunas cuestiones de la historia del bolchevismo. Carta a la redacción de la revista Proletárskaia Revolutsia” [“On Some Questions of the History of Bolshevism. Letter to the Editor of the Journal Proletárskaia Revolutsia”], in Cuestiones del leninismo [Foundations of Leninism]. Pekin: Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras, 1977. All Spanish to English language translations are ours.

Trotta, Margarethe von, Rosa Luxemburg, West Germany: Eberhard Junkersdorf and Regina Ziegler (producers), 1985, 123-minute film.

Trotsky, Leon: “Our Political Tasks” (Part II) in https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1904/tasks/ch03.htm. Retrieved 20 March, 2020.

Trotsky, Leon: “Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg!” in https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/06/luxemberg.htm.Retrieved 20 March, 2020.

Zetkin, Clara, “Rosa Luxemburg”, 1919, in https://www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1919/09/rosa.htm


[1] Luxemburgo [Luxemburg], Rosa: Problemas organizativos de la socialdemocracia [Organizational Problems of Social Democracy], in Obras escogidas [Selected Works], vol. 1. Buenos Aires: Pluma, 1976, p. 157. All Spanish to English language translations are ours.

[2] Trotsky, Leon: “Our Political Tasks” (Part II) in https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1904/tasks/ch03.htm. Retrieved 20 March 2020.

[3] Trotsky, Leon: “Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg!” in https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/06/luxemberg.htm. Retrieved 20 March 2020.

[4] Luxemburgo [Luxemburg], Rosa: Huelga de masas, partido y sindicato [Strike of the Masses, Party and Unions], in Obras escogidas [Selected Works], vol. 1. Buenos Aires: Pluma, 1976.

[5] Luxemburgo [Luxemburg], Rosa: La Revolución Rusa [The Russian Revolution], in Obras escogidas [Selected Works], vol. 2. Buenos Aires: Pluma, 1976, p. 202.

[6] Ibid., p. 201.

[7] Ibid., p. 196.

[8] Ibid., p. 198.

[9] Ibid., p. 196.

[11] Bertolt Brecht, “Epitaph”, available at https://revolutionarydemocracy.org/rdv15/brecht.htm. Retrieved 16 March 2020.

[12] Stalin, J.: “Sobre algunas cuestiones de la historia del bolchevismo. Carta a la redacción de la revista Proletárskaia Revolutsia” [“On Some Questions of the History of Bolshevism. Letter to the Editor of the Journal Proletárskaia Revolutsia”], in Cuestiones del leninismo [Foundations of Leninism]. Pekin: Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras, 1977, pp. 573-74.