Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish-German Marxist theorist and revolutionary activist. Marx’s biographer Franz Mehring called her the best brain after Marx in the socialist movement.
Luxemburg was born to middle-class Jewish parents at a time when Poland was partitioned and occupied by Austria, Germany, and Russia and grew up in Warsaw. Rejecting the nationalism of the Polish Socialist Party, she joined the banned revolutionary Proletariat Party as a teenager. Threatened with arrest, she left Poland in 1889 and became a student at Zurich University in Switzerland, where she remained politically active. Within a few years she had become Proletariat’s main theoretician, and in 1894, along with Leo Jogiches (1867–1919), she reconstituted the organization as the Social-Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland. Although Luxemburg never returned to Poland to live permanently, she remained the party’s theoretical leader until her death.
In 1898, Luxemburg moved to Berlin, joined the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the largest socialist party in the world, and soon became well known in the labor movement as a speaker and writer. The SPD had been banned between 1878 and 1890 and was formally committed to socialist revolution, but after 25 years of economic expansion, the party had become increasingly reformist in practice. At the time that Luxemburg joined the party, Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932), one of its leading theoretical figures, had written a series of articles rejecting many of Marx’s central doctrines, in particular the idea that economic crises are an inevitable feature of capitalism, and supporting a gradualist approach to politics. In response to Bernstein’s revisionism, Luxemburg wrote Social Reform or Revolution (1898–1899), arguing for the necessity of revolution, which established her as a leading figure on the left of the party. Luxemburg argued that economic crises are unavoidable under capitalism, and that even in liberal democracies, the state acts in the interests of the capitalist ruling class. Luxemburg did not reject the importance of the fight for democratic reforms, but she saw these primarily as fulcrums that the working class could use to organize revolution. Similarly, she supported trade union struggles for better wages and working conditions not because these could by themselves end exploitation, but because if successful they could raise workers’ confidence and consciousness. By contrast, she argued not only that Bernstein’s ideas could not lead to socialism, but that they would also make it more difficult to win immediate reforms by weakening the workers’ movement.
Luxemburg also engaged in a number of important debates with the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924). After the split between Lenin’s Bolsheviks (majority faction) and the Mensheviks (minority faction) in 1903, she objected to Lenin’s conception of a centralized revolutionary party that attempted to organize the most class-conscious workers, with the goal of winning wider layers of the class during periods of political and economic crisis, arguing that it would become bureaucratic and elitist. Lenin and Luxemburg also disagreed sharply over the national question, particularly with respect to Poland. Luxemburg argued that genuine Polish national independence was impossible under capitalism and unnecessary under socialism. Rather than advocating Polish independence, socialists should urge unity between Polish and Russian workers. By contrast, Lenin supported movements for independence in oppressed nations as a way of weakening the imperialist powers and argued that genuine unity between Poles and Russians was possible only if Russian workers acknowledged Poland’s right to self-determination.
Luxemburg had an unshakeable belief in the revolutionary potential of the working class and the ability of spontaneous mass struggle to radically alter consciousness and to push past the conservatism of trade union and political leaders. She discussed these themes in detail in her pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions, written shortly after the failed Russian revolution of 1905. Luxemburg described how mass economic strikes in czarist Russia resulted in clashes with the state, leading to openly political strikes that challenged the regime, which in turn drew new layers of workers into economic struggles. She emphasized the way in which mass strikes transform the people who participate in them, breaking down divisions within the working class and generating tremendous idealism, which pushes the struggle forward, and their centrality to the process of workers’ revolution. Elsewhere, Luxemburg—like the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (1879–1940)—argued that the revolution would need to move beyond the demand for democratic reforms and usher in workers’ control, or else it would be crushed. In late 1905, she surreptitiously entered Russian Poland to support the revolutionary movement there. After it was defeated, Luxemburg was briefly imprisoned before being deported back to Germany.
In the years before World War I, Luxemburg was outspoken in her opposition to imperialism and militarism at a time when many in the SDP and the Second International (a grouping of socialist and labor parties) viewed European colonialism as progressive. Luxemburg viewed imperialist expansion and war as inevitable consequences of competition between advanced capitalist countries, in opposition to the views of Karl Kautsky (1854–1938), the SDP’s leading theoretician, who believed that increased economic integration gave most capitalists an interest in avoiding war.
As part of this debate, Luxemburg published The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to the Economic Explanation of Imperialism in 1913. Marx had argued that behind the drive for capitalist firms to expand beyond the borders of their home countries and for the strongest states to engage in imperial conquest was the search for greater profits fueled by competition. Luxemburg believed that this explanation was inadequate and that capitalists needed external markets because domestic demand was insufficient to produce a surplus to invest in expanding production (i.e., accumulating capital). Capitalists in developed countries could obtain such a surplus only by finding noncapitalist markets for their goods, thus explaining the imperialist scramble for colonies. But by forcing these areas to accept their commodities, the noncapitalist sectors are incorporated into a single economic system and eventually become capitalist themselves. When there are no more noncapitalist markets to conquer, capitalism will no longer be able to expand and will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Other Marxist economists have criticized Luxemburg for ignoring the way in which capitalism is able to increase domestic demand by creating new “needs,” and the way in which imperialism was tied to the rise of monopoly capitalism and closer links between capital and nation-states. Luxemburg has also been criticized for her view that economic crises are the result of insufficient demand, rather than ultimately being due to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall that Marx discusses, and for arguing that capitalism was not simply crisis-prone but would eventually collapse from its own contradictions.
At congresses of the Second International in 1907 and 1912, Luxemburg successfully proposed resolutions opposing war between the imperialist countries and, in the event that war did break out, calling on the workers’ movement to fight to bring it to an end as soon as possible and to use the crisis it provoked to organize for the overthrow of capitalism. In early 1914, she was arrested and sentenced to prison for organizing demonstrations urging soldiers to disobey orders. When war eventually began in August of that year, however, Luxemburg was shocked that labor and socialist parties in nearly all the belligerent countries, including the SPD, supported their own governments. The blow was so great that Luxemburg briefly contemplated suicide, but instead she began organizing opposition to the war along with a handful of other revolutionaries, including Clara Zetkin (1857–1933) and Karl Liebknecht (1871–1919), even though she spent most of the war in prison. In January 1916, this group became the Spartacist League (named after the slave who led a revolt against the Roman Empire), which later formed the nucleus of the German Communist Party (KPD).
While Luxemburg was still in prison, Lenin’s Bolshevik Party took power in the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The following year, the war came to an end as the revolutionary wave spread to Germany. The Kaiser was overthrown and workers’ and soldiers’ councils temporarily took power in much of the country. Luxemburg was freed from prison and along with Liebknecht began editing Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), which agitated to push the revolution forward to socialism, while right-wing SDP leaders in the government allied with the German military to crush it. Luxemburg’s articles analyzed the situation brilliantly, but the Spartacist League—which merged with other groups to form the KPD in January 1919—was young and inexperienced. A few days after its formation, and against Luxemburg’s advice, the KPD attempted to seize power in Berlin. The uprising was premature, and the SPD government used the nationalist Freikorps militia to suppress it, assassinating both Liebknecht and Luxemburg in the process. The German revolutionary movement had lost its most important leader, but Luxemburg’s writings continue to inspire activists nearly 90 years after her death.
Bolsheviks; Communism; Lenin, V. I.; Russian Revolution; Socialism
Related Credo Articles
(1871–1919) German political leader. Born on 5 March 1871 in the Polish town of Zamość (Russia), Rosa Luxemburg became a German citizen through...
She was converted to communism in 1890, helped to found the Polish Social Democratic party (later the Communist Party), and...
Polish-German. b: 5 March 1870, Zamosc, Poland (Russian Poland), d: 15 January 1919, Berlin (murdered when arrested). Cat: Political...