Rosa Luxemburg: profile of a revolutionary


from The People
March 5, 1983
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Rosa Luxemburg: profile of a revolutionary

March 5 is the anniversary of the birth of Rosa Luxemburg, an uncompromising revolutionary who was martyred in the struggle for socialism.

Luxemburg was born in Zamosc, Poland, in 1871. A bright child, she spoke three languages by the time she entered an exclusive Russian high school in 1885. While still in high school she joined the small Polish Proletarian Party. The Russian authorities, seeing such activities as evidence of a "rebellious attitude," withheld the gold medal for scholastic excellence she had earned upon her graduation in 1887.

Facing arrest for her political activities, she was compelled to flee Poland in 1889. That same year she arrived in Switzerland where she enrolled at the University of Zurich. She graduated in 1897 with a doctorate in political economy -- a significant accomplishment for a woman in 19th century Europe.

While at the university, Luxemburg had met other young Polish emigres. In 1892 she banded together with a group of them to form the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). Her interest in the writings of Marx began at this time.


As a quick and eager student of Marxian socialism, she soon became disenchanted with the nationalistic basis of the PPS. Together with other like-minded Poles she left to form the Social Democratic Party of Poland in 1894. A few years later the party was joined by a group of young Lithuanians and subsequently reorganized as the Social Democratic Party of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) in 1899.

In 1897 Luxemburg decided to move to Germany, wishing to participate in the activities of what was then the largest and most promising socialist party in Europe, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). By 1898 she had settled in Berlin. Coincident with her arrival in Berlin, a series of articles by Eduard Bernstein was being published in the SPD's theoretical journal Neue Zeit. In them Bernstein renounced the revolutionary objectives of Marxian socialism, instead advocating a policy of reformism which eventually became known as revisionism.

Luxemburg refuted Bernstein's arguments in two articles later published in pamphlet form as "Reform or Revolution." While accepting reforms as one means to the socialist end during that period, she warned that "as soon as 'immediate' results become the principal aim of our activity, the clear-cut, irreconcilable point of view, which has meaning only inasfar as it proposes to win power, will be found more and more inconvenient.... Since social reforms can only offer an empty promise, the logical consequence of such a program must necessarily be disillusionment."


In 1904, Luxemburg's continuing interest in events in Poland and Russia led her to write articles on the dispute within the Russian Social Democratic Party between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. She wrote in principled disagreement with Lenin and the Bolsheviks' conception of a strongly centralized political organization. "Centralism in a socialist sense," she emphasized, "is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labor movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the masses in the course of their struggle.... Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee."

Luxemburg was not anti-Bolshevik. She welcomed the Russian Revolution and commented on the positive aspects of Bolshevik policies in the context of the conditions under which the party had to operate. But she also emphasized the education, organization and self-activity of the masses as the key to socialist revolution, rejecting the vanguardism to which the Bolsheviks were prone.

Specifically, Luxemburg wrote that the dictatorship of the proletariat "must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class." It must proceed "step by step out of the active participation of the masses ... subjected to the control of complete public activity ... [arising] out of the growing political training of the mass of people."

In Germany, the expansion of German capitalism inevitably gave rise to growing militarism and imperialism. In the 1912 parliamentary elections, the SPD won a plurality of seats in the Reichstag for the first time in history after a campaign based on opposition to imperialism. It had warned German workers that the growing threat of a European war would see only the blood of workers spilled for the benefit of ruling classes in various countries.

But the growth of nationalism and revisionism within the party's ranks took its toll two years later. On August 3, 1914, the German government declared war on Russia. That same day the Kaiser requested funds from the Reichstag to finance a large army.

The SPD delegation voted to approve the Kaiser's request. Luxemburg, as close and involved as she was with the party and as aware of its deficiencies as she was, was shocked by this betrayal of socialist internationalism.

Opposition to the official SPD policy soon developed. It would culminate in a split within the party's Reichstag delegation the following year. On December 16, 1915, Karl Liebknecht lead a group of deputies to vote against a government appeal for more funds. For this and other activities against the imperialist war, he was expelled from the party.

In January 1916, Liebknecht joined Luxemburg and other revolutionary socialists in forming the Spartacus League to oppose SPD war policies. Public appearances by Luxemburg and Liebknecht, along with other activities in support of the socialist principles of internationalism and classconsciousness, led to their arrest.

From prison, Luxemburg was able to write and smuggle out her famous Junius Pamphlet. In it she attacked the SPD for betraying the principles of the international socialist movement. And in answer to German imperialism's argument that the war was one of "national defense," she replied that "in the present imperialistic milieu, there can be no wars of national self defense." And any socialist policy based upon "the point of view of a single nation ... is building upon a foundation of sand."


As the war went on, revolutionary fervor began to grow. By the end of 1918 the effects of war and imperialism on German society boiled over. Large segments of the German working class formed workers' and soldiers' councils. SPD leaders called for "law and order" and tried by force to contain the workers' objectives to the overthrow of the Kaiser and the establishment of a capitalist parliamentary government.

In the first waves of the revolution, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were released from prison. They worked in the hope that the workers' and soldiers' councils would grasp control of government and industry. And, never losing sight of the revolution's international character, they and other revolutionaries issued a manifesto to workers of all countries on December 26, 1918. It urged all workers to "elect Workers' and Soldiers' Councils everywhere that will seize political power and, together with us, will restore peace."

In January 1919, large numbers of German workers took to the streets in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the SPD government and consummate the revolution. On the night of January 15, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested by soldiers under the orders of SPD officials. Both were murdered -- shot and beaten to death.

In death as in life, Rosa Luxemburg provided inspiration for revolutionaries everywhere. She grasped the revolutionary essence of Marxism and held it aloft as a beacon to workers. And despite many temporary defeats, she never lost confidence in the capacity of the working class to accomplish its own emancipation.