International Socialist Archives

International Socialist was the journal produced by our tendency until January 2001, when we left the Committee for a Workers International. We now produce the journal Frontline.

Rosa Luxemburg

by Catriona Grant

Thugs murdered Rosa Luxemburg, the great revolutionary socialist of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in January 1919. Despite her death 81 years ago socialists throughout the world still celebrate her memory and her contribution to the international Marxist movement.

Luxemburg was born in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, and died just over a year after the tremendous events of the Russian Revolution. Born in the Russian part of Poland to middle class liberal parents, Luxemburg Excelled at school and became involved in politics at a young age, joining the underground revolutionary movement organised in Poland at the time.

In 1889, fleeing state repression, she began her studies at Zurich University, studying Mathematics and Political Sciences. The University of Zurich, was one of the few Universities in Europe at this time allowing women and men to study on an equal basis. During this time, Luxemburg educated herself in the ideas of Marx, Engels and the other great Marxists of the day. She also became involved in the Polish Socialist Party. She argued strongly against Polish independence, as a dangerous trap to be avoided at all costs, as it would subordinate working class struggles to bourgeois interests wearing the clothing of nationalism.

She became involved in many polemics with Marxists across Europe on the national question predominantly Karl Kautsky, and Wilhelm Liebknecht, both of whom were Marxist leaders within the SPD. In 1898 Luxemburg moved to Germany and joined the SPD by this time she had already established herself as a formidable Marxist speaker and writer. The SPD at this time was an impressive organisation, the largest working class party in the world. By 1912 it had amassed over 1 million members, 15,000 full-time party workers, 90 daily newspapers, youth and women’s sections and 2.5 million affiliated trade unionists. The SPD brought together under its banner every conceivable tendency within the broad socialist movement. Antagonistic points of view clashed with each other in the party publications, public meetings and congresses.
Luxemburg was not popular with many members of the executive of the SPD she was seen as a cantankerous foreign youngster who was also a woman! It was often attempted to sideline Luxemburg into the women’s section; organising women where it was deemed she properly belonged. Luxemburg turned down such offers and did not agree that as a revolutionary that she should take up the "traditional" role of women in the party. Luxemburg saw herself as a leader of men and women. Perhaps it is unfortunate that Luxemburg wrote rarely about the special problems and issues of the struggle for women’s liberation. However she was clear in stating that women can achieve their full liberation only with the triumph of the socialist revolution and with the elimination of the economic bondage to the family institution. Women still must fight for liberation before the revolution and part of the struggle for liberation is to struggle for the revolution.

The German SPD had many clashes, Luxemburg was tested when Eduard Bernstein, an SPD leader, challenged the basic idea of Marxism. He argued that capitalism had overcome some of its contradictions and could provide for the working class. Economic crisis could be eliminated by credit, the development of monopolies and the beginning of globalisation. The SPD could no longer be a party standing for class struggle and revolutionary change but had to be a party to fight for economic and social reforms he argued.

Luxemburg fought tenaciously against Bernstein and his followers who advocated the turning away of the labour movement away from the fight to abolish capitalism to the unscientific utopian, phoney scheme to reform the rank system of capitalism. In her famous pamphlet "Social Reform or Revolution" in which she took up the arguments of Bernstein and his followers, Luxemburg argued that despite the economy having a prolonged economic upswing that it had not solved its contradictions.

Credit only dealt with economic problems in the short term, by delaying economic crisis, but that it would also contribute to future economic slumps. She argued that when capitalism moved into crisis it would attack past reforms and undermine the conditions of the working class rather than protect them. The fight against capitalism and for revolutionary change was as great as ever she argued. The fight for reforms by working class people under capitalism were part of the struggle for revolution. By struggling for economic, social and political reforms on a daily basis, workers become more confident, better organised and make greater demands. In doing so become more aware of the capitalist system and its contradictions. Through struggle the working class are able to come to conclusions about socialism, how society is organised and the need to change it. The reformist positions of Bernstein were defeated at three SPD congresses however the ideas had penetrated into the SPD. Sections of the leadership had become bureaucratised and conservative and were holding back the working class movement.

Luxemburg participated in the proceedings of the Second International and agreed with Trotsky’s position on the permanent revolution. At the 1904 congress Lenin half joked that Rosa Luxemburg was supporting Trotsky’s position because she did not speak Russian very well. Trotsky retorted-"But then she speaks excellent Marxian" The 1905 Russian Revolution gave Luxemburg the opportunity to shake the conservative SPD. In the pamphlet Mass Strike she attempts to interpret the events of 1905 in Russia for the German working class, and draw lessons for the future of the revolutionary struggle within Germany. Luxemburg argued that a mass strike (or general strike) is a weapon used by the working class in its battles against the bosses and the capitalist system. She tried to give a Marxist analysis of the events of 1905 to explain the economic and political factors contributing to the call for a general strike. Her central argument being that a general strike is not a sterile demand, artificially created in the minds of timid trade union bureaucrats. Within the pamphlet she was scathing towards the trade union leadership for their cowardice and reformist ideas. Perhaps she was guilty of bending the stick towards spontaneity; she did also however recognise the necessity of the revolutionary party, which could unite the most conscious workers, giving a lead in a revolutionary situation.

Luxemburg’s weakness was to fail to organise an organisational opposition to the SPD’s leaders’ drift towards reformism and to moral suicide at the beginning of the World War One. The bankruptcy of the SPD was exposed in 1914 when it supported the German capitalist classes in going to war within Europe.

Luxemburg spoke out publicly against the war, which she was imprisoned for. She was one of the few revolutionaries throughout Europe along side her friend and comrade Karl Liebknecht from the SPD, John Maclean in Scotland, and the Bolsheviks in Russia who denounced the war and maintained an internationalist position. She spent most this period incarcerated in prison for speaking out against militarism and the slaughter of working class people whilst fighting a pointless, bloody war that served only the interests of the European capitalist classes.

The Spartacist League was formed in 1916 in an attempt to strengthen opposition against the war. Despite it attracting some of the best layers of workers and youth it remained a loose network rather than a cohesive party. In 1918 when a revolutionary situation finally happened the Spartacist League and its successor the German Communist Party - in a loose coalition with other revolutionaries, creating a Revolutionary Executive. They were in the thick of the battles leading defecting soldiers and sailors, workers and youth. However their lack of structures and organisation left them too weak to lead the working class to successfully overthrow capitalism as Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks had in Russia in October 1917. The state forces, with the SPD at their head, were determined to bring "law and order" to Germany. They crushed the revolution and brutally murdered Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Leibknecht and many other revolutionary leaders and workers.

As state and reactionary forces took over, they executed revolutionaries where ever they found them. Many fled, however Luxemburg and Liebknecht refused to leave and hid in a temporary headquarters of one of the paramilitary units. They were found with ease, Liebknecht was taken outside from where they were hiding and executed whilst he "tried to escape". At the time of his execution Liebknecht chose as his last words the Burns song "A man’s a man for a’ that".

Rosa Luxemburg was shot in the head and her body flung into a canal, her body was not retrieved until 4 months later. Just before her execution she wrote: "The revolution will come back and announce I was, I am, I shall be." The revolution did return in 1923 only to be defeated once again. Despite Luxemburg being murdered and the revolution being defeated she left behind a wonderful legacy. In her writings she tells of her own life, what she believed and how she wanted to change society. Leon Trotsky gave the greatest revolutionary tribute to both Luxemburg and Liebknecht:

"For us Liebknecht was not a German leader. For us Luxemburg was not a Polish socialist who stood at the head of the German workers. No, they are both kindred of the world proletariat and we are all tied to them with an indissoluble spiritual link. Till their last breath they belonged not to a nation but to the International!"