Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish-German political theorist and Marxist revolutionary who championed internationalism, anti-militarism, and democratic socialism. She was born in Russian-ruled Poland on March 5th, 1871. Luxemburg belonged to a lower-middle class family and was the youngest of five siblings. Her father was a timber trader who supported liberal ideas. Her mother was a religious woman who was well-read and kept books in the home. At the age of five, Luxemburg suffered a hip displacement that beset her with a limp for the rest of her life. Her status as a disabled Polish Jewish woman made her a veritable welcome mat for discrimination. Yet she gained admittance to an esteemed Russian all-girls preparatory school in Warsaw that admitted few Poles and even fewer Jews.
Luxemburg became politically active at an early age. By the time she was 15, she had organized a general strike with the Polish Proletarian Party. After the strike was crushed and four of her comrades were executed, the Party officially disbanded, although Luxemburg continued to meet with other members in secret. Four years later, faced with the prospect of imprisonment, Luxemburg fled to Switzerland, where she attended the University of Zurich to study law, philosophy, and political theory. She specialized in stock exchange crises and the Middle Ages and received a JD for her dissertation The Industrial Development of Poland.
After graduation, Luxemburg founded the Leftist newspaper The Workers’ Cause to opine on issues such as the “national question.” Luxemburg believed that nationalism’s emphasis on allegiance to one’s country was reactionary and misguided. She instead advocated allegiance to one’s class to unify the workers of the world against the bourgeoisie of their respective nations. Luxemburg criticized both the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Bolshevik Party of Russia for their subordination of international socialism to the German war effort during WWI and the right to self-determination, respectively.
In 1898, Luxemburg entered into a marriage of convenience with Gustav Lubeck, the son of an old friend. Her motivation was to gain German citizenship so that she could move to Berlin and directly participate in the SPD, which was the largest member of the Second International of socialist and labor parties. In Berlin, she engaged in a highly publicized debate with SPD theoretician Eduard Bernstein over whether socialism could be achieved through reform alone. Luxemburg argued that while progressive legislation and collective bargaining represented steps on the road to revolution, they could not dissolve the split between labor and capital, i.e. between workers and owners. According to Luxemburg, reform amounts to a mere “regulation of exploitation,” whereas the project of socialism is to abolish exploitation altogether. She held that this abolition could not be achieved through polite negotiations with the enemy but through a general strike in which the workers of the world refuse to work until they are given direct control of their workplaces.
In 1905, following its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia was hit with its first wave of revolution. Luxemburg traveled to Warsaw to take part in the struggle and was imprisoned three times between 1904-06 for her involvement. When she was released in 1907, she returned to Berlin to teach at the SPD’s training center. During this time, she wrote her book-length text on economics titled The Accumulation of Capital, which identifies imperialism as a capitalist enterprise undertaken to expand markets. According to Luxemburg, the conquest of foreign peoples and lands permits the ruling class to temporarily avoid the crisis of overproduction by offloading surplus goods abroad.
In the lead up to World War I, a debate raged in the SPD over whether to support Germany’s participation in the war. The pro camp argued that it would help liberate the Russian proletariat from the backwards nation of Czarist Russia, while the con camp, to which Luxemburg belonged, argued that all wars amount to the world’s poor fighting on behalf of the world’s rich. At the 1907 Second International Congress in Stuttgart, Luxemburg’s resolution to unite all European workers’ parties against the war won out. But in 1914, the SPD betrayed this commitment to endorse Germany’s entrance into the war. In response, Luxemburg, nearly driven to suicide by the decision, founded the anti-war Spartacus League, named after the slave-gladiator Spartacus who led a slave revolt against the Roman Republic in 73 BCE. The League distributed anti-war pamphlets that resulted in Luxemburg’s imprisonment for a fifth time.
Luxemburg continued her activism behind bars, composing essays that were smuggled out of her cell and published. The most famous of these, The Russian Revolution, criticizes the anti-democratic practices of the early Soviet Union. In the essay, Luxemburg upholds the right to free elections, an uncensored press, and the right to assemble. She maintains that the success of a post-revolutionary society rests on broad public participation and that “freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” Without these democratic safeguards, the socialist ideal of “dictatorship of the proletariat” is said to become a “dictatorship of a handful of politicians” that inevitably leads to corruption, repression, and violence.
In November of 1918, after the German command ordered that soldiers keep fighting in the face of certain defeat, German sailors launched their own revolution with the slogan “peace and bread.” The revolution abolished Germany’s monarchy, with Kaiser Wilhelm abdicating the throne on November 9th of that year. Yet the SPD, in a capitulation to the ruling class, declined to support Soviet-style workers councils and instead established a national parliament that preserved the wealth and power of the German capitalists. Feeling once again betrayed, Luxemburg and the Spartacus League launched an uprising that seized newspaper buildings and published literature advocating for a continuation of the revolution until direct proletarian control of the government and economy was secured.
The uprising proved to be a failure. Heavily armed groups of right-wing WWI veterans known as freikorps — citizens’ militias whose membership included many future Nazi leaders — crushed the rebellion and arrested Luxemburg and her co-leader Karl Liebknecht. Luxemburg was tortured and beaten before being executed via a shotgun bullet to the head. Her body was dumped into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal. Today, she is recognized as a martyr for democratic socialism as well as a champion of Marxist humanism.
Luxemburg was a true believer in the cause of worker liberation, which she viewed as a moral imperative given the perceived alternative of “regression into barbarism.” Hours before her death, she wrote,
“That is why future victories will spring from this ‘defeat.’ ‘Order prevails in Berlin!’ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons,’ and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!”
Every January, thousands of people honor Luxemburg’s memory by making a pilgrimage to her gravesite in Berlin.