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The Revolutionary Life of Rosa Luxemburg

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

By Katja Raetz

The firm conviction that the capitalist system must be overthrown in order to create a world free from oppression and war was what caused Rosa Luxemburg never to give up or allow herself to be silenced. “Out of all this bloody confusion, this yawning abyss, there is no help, no escape, no rescue other than socialism”, she and the workers’ leader Karl Liebknecht wrote one month before they were murdered, on the 15th of January 1919.

Rosalie Luxemburg was born in Poland the 5th of March 1871. Poland at the time was not independent, but a part of tsarist Russia. Even Germany and Austria had seized control over Polish areas. National liberation was the main issue for the Polish workers’ movement.

When the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland was founded in 1894, Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches became its spokespersons. Rosa Luxemburg struggled for the workers’ movement in Poland to take an international stance. She explained that Poland’s liberation only could be resolved through revolutions in Russia, Germany and Austria. Therefore, she said, the main task for the revolutionaries was not to struggle for an independent Poland, but to combat the capitalist state.

Rosa meant that the demand for an independent Poland would favour the bourgeois nationalism and divert the struggle against capitalism. She did however also oppose the right to self-determination for the Polish masses, which was a misconception that she held on to during her entire life. Contrary to that, Lenin supported the nations’ right to self-determination as a democratic demand. Lenin considered it necessary to bring up the wish for national self-determination from the left in order to be able to fight against reactionary nationalism and prevent a division of the working class.

In 1897 Rosa Luxemburg set off for Germany. Through marriage she received German citizenship which gave her the chance to carry out legal political work among Polish workers. She became a member of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and participated at the SPD Congress in October 1898.

She was quickly involved in the internal discussions within the SPD. Eduard Bernstein, one of the leading theorists, claimed that capitalism, in a crucial way, had changed character. He stated that capitalism had entered a peaceful phase with considerable improvements to the conditions of the working class. It was therefore, according to his “revision of Marxism”, no longer necessary to fight for a revolution; instead the contradictions between the capitalist class and the working class could be resolved through reforms. He concluded his reformist stance (the revisionism) in one sentence: “To me that which is generally called the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything”.

Rosa Luxemburg intervened in the debate with one of her most famous writings, Social Reform or Revolution. In this writing she explained that the struggle for reforms and the struggle for revolution are two different methods for socialists which are correct to use in different situations. The struggle for reforms is necessary to develop the consciousness of the working class of their own strength, to pull in new sections into the struggle and to spread socialist ideas. Revolution is however necessary for the workers to take power and abolish the capitalist exploitation. In this debate Rosa Luxemburg stood side by side with August Bebel and Karl Kautsky, the main leaders of the SPD, and she developed a close friendship with Kautsky in particular.

Under the influence of the Russian revolution 1905 the German workers also went out on strikes. Rosa Luxemburg could for the first time speak on trade union meetings and immediately became known as a fantastic speaker. She repeatedly attacked German militarism and imperialism. Rosa went to Warsaw as soon as possible to support the revolution. On the 6th of March 1906 however, she and Leo Jogiches were arrested. Rosa was freed on bail because of her severe health problems in June and immediately left Poland. She expressed her experiences and her analysis of the revolution in the writing The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions.

At the SPD Congress in Mannheim in 1906 she agitated for the general strike as the main struggle method of the working class. She was strongly attacked by all the SPD leaders, including Bebel and Kautsky, and in particular by the union leaders. The debate about the mass strike revealed the strong stance of reformism within the SPD leadership and Rosa Luxemburg was rather isolated. In 1908, for the first time, the SPD took six seats in the Prussian parliament. Rosa Luxemburg wrote to Clara Zetkin: “August Bebel, and still more so the others, have completely spent themselves on behalf of parliamentarism and in parliamentary struggles.”

Contrary to the leadership of the Social Democrats, Rosa Luxemburg explained that the mass strike is a method which is put to use by the working masses themselves; that it prepares for the revolution and that it pulls in new, unorganised sections into the struggle. In relation to this she also touched on the question of the party organisation. She wrongfully criticised Lenin who argued for a firm and centralised organisation in Russia, with employed “professional revolutionaries” and an active, conscious body of members. Her criticism of Lenin’s “centralism” did not take into account the concrete conditions and tasks in Russia at this time (1903-04); to make the political and organisational foundation for a revolutionary party, which combined unity in action with true internal democracy (democratic centralism).

Rosa Luxemburg thought that the revolutionary party to a much greater degree than that includes the working class as a whole. The pressure from the revolutionary masses should, according to her, be enough to correct mistakes in the party’s politics. It has been claimed by her enemies that she invented a theory of spontaneity. Rosa Luxemburg did however not rule out the need for a conscious leadership. Although she did largely underestimate the influence from a leadership which opposes the struggle and is lead in a counter-revolutionary direction - something that came to happen during the German November revolution in 1918.

In 1910 the German class struggle entered a new boost. Demands for a general strike were made, but the SPD executive committee together with the union leadership decided to stop the movement. The SPD paper Vorwärts refused to publish an article by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky publicly attacked her.

During the following years Rosa Luxemburg spent most of her time agitating against war and nationalism. She worked with other socialists like Franz Mehring, Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin, among others. Though no one in this circle came to the conclusion of building a new organisation, but instead just kept on having regular meetings.

Just like Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin was an internationalist. It was she who took the initiative to the first international, socialist women’s conference in Stuttgart in 1907, with participation of 58 women from 15 countries. When the international socialist women’s conference met again in 1910, they decided on organising a global women’s struggle day. At this time Clara Zetkin had already fought for women’s rights for 20 years. In 1889 she participated in preparing for the first international workers’ congress in Paris; the Socialist International’s founding congress. During the congress she initiated a debate on the working woman’s situation.

After the congress she returned to Germany and became editor for the newspaper Die Gleichheit(The Equality), the German Social Democracy’s women’s paper. Zetkin used the paper as a tool to politicise and organise working women. The paper brought up issues such as the woman’s position at work, prostitution etc, but also themes such as Marxist economy and the struggle against militarism.

For Zetkin it was also about illustrating the differences between the proletarian and the bourgeois women’s movements. When it came to the right to vote for example, the bourgeois woman basically only fought for the same rights as her bourgeois husband - but who was allowed to vote in many countries still depended on income and class, where even working class men lacked the right to vote. Therefore, the Socialist International demanded universal and equal suffrage.

Zetkin explained that for a working woman who is oppressed as a woman and as a worker there is a need for struggle against the exploitation that is based on private ownership of the means of production - capitalism. To stand up against the oppressors the workers, regardless of gender, must unite in class struggle. During her whole life she fought so that the proletarian women’s movement would be one with the socialist workers’ movement.

When the reformism started to get a foothold within SPD, she used Die Gleichheitto fight against these ideas, which were basically within the conforms of capitalism, and published several articles. Die Gleichheit was finally the only Social Democratic paper that was not controlled by the party’s right wing. Clara Zetkin and the majority of the women’s organisation supported the left within SPD where Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were the prominent figures.

On the 4th of August 1914 in parliament the SPD voted for the war credits that would finance Germany’s participation in the first World War, “the deepest decline towards a terrible collapse” (*), as Luxemburg described it in 1916. This meant the end of the Socialist International (The second international). Lenin later wrote: “Rosa Luxemburg was right, she realised a long time ago that Kautsky was an opportunistic theoretician who served the majority within the party, simply a servant to opportunism.” (*)

A small group of comrades around Rosa Luxemburg decided to take up the struggle against the war and the SPD war politics under the name “Spartacus”. In the spring of 1915, they started giving out a new paper, Die Internationale (The International), which however was banned already after the first - and last - issue. In February the same year Rosa Luxemburg was sentenced to one year in prison.

After her release, Spartacus carried through a conference in March of 1916 which showed an increased force. On the first of May the same year they organised an anti-war demonstration in Berlin, after which Karl Liebknecht was arrested. He was sentenced to two and a half years hard labour.

On the same day the sentence was announced, 55.000 workers went on strike. The German militarism reacted: On the 10th of July hundreds of Spartacus followers were arrested, including Rosa Luxemburg. She was put in “protective custody”, in other words without trial indefinitely. Not until the German November revolution in 1918 she was freed.

The Russian revolution in 1917 received quick response in Germany. In April 1917 a wave of large ammunition workers’ strikes spread over the entire country. In Berlin alone over 300.000 workers went on strike. By the end of January 1918, a new strike wave swept over Germany, against the treaty and the mass starvation at home and for democratic reforms. In Berlin, half a million workers went on strike.

The sailors’ rebellion in Kiel became the igniting spark for the revolution. The 4th of November 1918 the governor of Kiel was forced to resign, and a workers’ and sailors’ council took over power on a local level. From there the revolution spread from city to city. On the 9th of November the revolution reached Berlin and emperor Wilhelm II fled to the Netherlands. The position of Chancellor was handed over to the SPD leader Friedrich Ebert, who accepted the nomination with the following assurance: “I hate the revolution like sin”.

Workers’ councils were elected at the factories and an executive committee for workers’ and soldiers’ councils was created. These councils controlled the factories, but they never took over the political power. SPD and the newly formed Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) aimed for the National assembly, which meant giving back the power to the bourgeois parliament. Meanwhile, Ebert negotiated with the general staff on how to crush the revolution. When Rosa Luxemburg was freed on November 8th 1918 she was severely ill, but she still immediately took on her revolutionary work. She wrote: “All power in the hands of the working masses, in the hands of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, protection of the work of revolution against its lurking enemies”.

In December 1918 the General congress for Germany’s workers’ and soldiers’ councils took place. Out of more than 400 delegates only 179 were workers. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were not appointed as delegates. Even though 250.000 demonstrated outside of the congress, it decided that all power should be given to the National assembly and the Ebert government, and that it would dissolve itself.

The socialists concluded that a new revolutionary party was needed. From the 30th of December to the 1st of January the German Communist Party’s (KPD) founding congress was held, where Rosa Luxemburg held the introduction of the party programme. The congress decided against Rosa Luxemburg’s proposition to boycott the election to the National assembly and the cooperation with SPD-led unions. For that reason, KPD was isolated from the working class for a long time. Not until October 1920, when USPD split and the majority of the party joined the Communist International, KPD became a mass party with 300.000 members.

Even though the revolution had come to a halt the struggles and demonstrations continued. But the counter-revolution had grown strong. The members of the executive committee of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils were arrested, and demonstrations were met with gunfire.

In January the counter-revolution escalated the propaganda against the KPD leaders. SPD flyers encouraged the murder of Karl Liebknecht. In January 1919 new uprisings started in Berlin, which were used as an excuse for an escalated terror. This uprising was accredited to Spartacus, even though it was not arranged by the Spartacus League. Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and other KPD leaders were forced to flee from one apartment to another. There was a prize of 100.000 German marks on their heads.

On the 15th of January Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were apprehended and murdered by Freikorps, paramilitary command units created by the Social Democrat Noske. Rosa Luxemburg’s body was thrown in the Landwehr canal and was not found until the 31st of May. With this murder the civil war against socialists and activists was initiated, and which ended with the crushing of the remaining workers’ and soldiers’ councils throughout Germany.

Little over ten years after her death Stalin attempted to smear Rosa Luxemburg by calling her a reformist. When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 her writings were publicly burned. Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas live on, despite all the attempts by the Social Democracy, Stalinism and fascism to bury them.

Her famous words “Socialism or barbarism” which start the pamphlet on the crisis of Social Democracy, written during the ongoing first World War, have not lost their meaning. In a time of electoral success for the far-right and the imminent climate threat, they are a call to battle for socialism - for the liberation of humanity.

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