Rosa Luxemburg was one of the great revolutionary socialists of the twentieth century. She fought for internationalism against imperialist war, and for the revolutionary activity of the working class against bureaucratic leaders who betrayed the working class.
Those who want to write off the achievements of the Russian Revolution, and to deny the need for a revolutionary party, often like to claim Rosa Luxemburg’s work as justification. But they are wrong.
Born in Poland in 1871, Luxemburg was a fighter against oppression from her school days onwards. She faced discrimination as both a Pole and a Jew in the Russian empire. Years of underground work culminated in the founding of the Social Democratic Party of Poland and Lithuania in 1894. Luxemburg moved to Germany in 1897 to work in the growing German Social Democratic Party. She established a reputation as an innovative Marxist intellectual with her work on economics and her intervention in the debate on the Polish national question.
Luxemburg was to clash sharply with Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders over both her theory of economic crisis and her refusal to back the call for Polish national self-determination. But Luxemburg’s main contribution to Marxism was still to come.
In 1898 Eduard Bernstein, a leader of the SPD, published his “revisionist” manifesto Evolutionary Socialism. Luxemburg’s pamphlet Reform or Revolution was a rallying cry against Bernstein’s ideas. She showed that his ideas of gradual reform and opportunism – adaptation to the capitalist system – called into question the very existence of the new socialist party.
Luxemburg also attacked the wavering “centre” in the SPD, led by Karl Kautsky, which developed a conciliatory attitude to opportunism.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1905 the SPD debated the political value of the mass strike. The German trade union leaders banned discussion of the mass strike as “playing with fire”. The SPD leadership made a secret deal not to oppose them.
Published in August 1906, Luxemburg’s pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, was a polemic against the trade union bureaucracy’s attempt to stifle the spontaneous revolutionary activity of the working class.
Ahe explained how “the mass strike is inseparable from revolution”, and that “the social democrats are called upon to assume political leadership in the midst of the revolutionary period.” Luxemburg counterposed the spontaneity of the masses to the conservative policy of the trade union bureaucracy. “This counter position”, Leon Trotsky wrote later, “had a thoroughly revolutionary and progressive character.”
But there were weaknesses in Luxemburg’s attitude to building a revolutionary party. Not surprisingly, it is these weaknesses that form the attractive part of her politics to today’s opponents of Bolshevism.
While Luxemburg understood the importance of a revolutionary party, her stress on the spontaneous activity of the working class meant she did not understand the need for a combat party like that of the Bolsheviks. While she fought the right wing in the SPD, she did not organise the left into a faction to oust them from the leadership of the party until it was too late.
In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, Luxemburg stood almost alone against the SPD’s support for the imperialist slaughter. She denounced the SPD as a “stinking corpse”. Alongside Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin she began to rally the internationalist wing of the SPD against the war.
Luxemburg hailed the Russian Revolution of 1917. Lenin’s detractors today seize on Luxemburg’s criticisms, forgetting her insistence that the Bolshevik rising was “the salvation of the honour of international socialism.”
In November 1918 the German war effort collapsed. Troops mutinied. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils were formed. The SPD was propelled to power, determined to head off a revolutionary outcome to the crisis.
Luxemburg and Liebknecht launched Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) the paper of the recently formed Spartakusbund. In her brilliant incisive style she rallied the masses for revolution:
“either the continuation of capitalism, new wars and a very early decline into chaos and anarchy, or the abolition of capitalist exploitation.”
Luxemburg formed the German Communist Party (KPD) in December 1918. But in January 1919 the KDP was provoked into a premature uprising. After urging the young and inexperienced membership of the KPD not to launch the rising, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were powerless to stop it.
The rising was crushed. A massive campaign was launched against Luxemburg. One hundred thousand marks were offered for her capture. The SPD leaders, Noske and Scheidemann, ordered right wing paramilitaries to hunt her down.
On 15 January 1919 she and Liebknecht were caught. Luxemburg’s head was smashed in with a rifle and her body thrown with Liebknecht’s into a canal.
Red Rosa was dead.
Rosa Luxemburg should be remembered as one of the greatest revolutionaries. Her comrade and close friend Clara Zetkin wrote in her memory: “she was the sharp sword, the living flame of the revolution.”