On this day in 1871, Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland to her Jewish parents, Line and Eliasz Luxemburg. Her political life began early, as by the time she was fifteen she was a member of the Polish Proletariat party, one of the first Marxist parties of the day. There she was instrumental in organizing a general strike in 1886, one which was subsequently crushed by the Polish government, leading to the execution of four of the Proletariat’s leaders. However, Luxemburg continued to meet with the remaining members of the party in secret, while preparing for a Matura exam which she passed in 1887. In 1889, Luxemburg was smuggled to Switzerland to avoid imprisonment, where she would attend Zürich University. She studied a vast array of subjects, and specialized in government, the Middle Ages, and economic crisis. In 1897, she wrote a doctoral dissertation on the industrialization of Poland. Zürich is incidentally also where Luxemburg met Leo Jogiches. The two fell in love and would remain romantically involved for the following seventeen years, remaining colleagues for the rest of Luxemburg’s life.
Meanwhile, Luxemburg remained politically active. In 1893, she attended the Third Congress of the Second International, where she met Friedrich Engels and Georgi Plekhanov. The seeds of Rosa’s later ideological works were here as well. She famously argued against the self-determination of Poland should a socialist revolution be successful in Germany, insisting upon “strict internationalism.” This position was contrary to many other Marxist thinkers of the time, but Luxemburg never shied away from challenging the views of even the most well-respected luminaries. For this she would garner a sizable reputation in the years to come.
Combating reformism and revisionism
In 1898, Rosa moved to Germany and became a member of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), which was then the largest socialist party in the world. At the time, Eduard Bernstein was a leading figure in Marxist thought within the SPD. However, in the late 1800’s he began to take an ideological shift, arguing that the traditional Marxist advocacy of revolution was outdated, and that the gradual, social reform of capitalism would eventually lead to socialism. He posited that the growing credit system, the increasing power of trade unions, and the expansion of parliamentary democracy meant that the days of capitalist crisis were numbered. According to Bernstein, the working class would see greater and greater social control as a result of the natural development of capitalism combined with the push for social reforms from the SPD. In short, Bernstein argued that reform was a more gradual, peaceful way of achieving the same end as Marxist revolution. This line of thinking would come to be known as “revisionism.”
Luxemburg’s polemic, Social Reform or Revolution (1899), demolished Bernstein’s position. She wrote that the credit system, far from reducing the frequency and severity of capitalist crisis, would ultimately exacerbate crisis and create new crises of its own (an argument that still rings very true to this day). Trade unions also, she argued, could not lead to the institution of socialism, for the unions have no direct control over the law of value or the process of production which in large part determine the strength of unions at any given time. As for the utilization of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, Luxemburg pointed out that the bourgeoisie only believe in democracy when it suits them. Should the capitalist class be genuinely threatened, they would abandon democracy in a heartbeat.
Bernstein shows that he recognizes this when he makes the ‘legend’ of Social Democracy which ‘wants to swallow everything’—in other words, the socialist efforts of the working class—responsible for the desertion of the liberal bourgeoisie [from an alliance with Social Democracy]. In this connection, he advises the proletariat to disavow its socialist aim so that the mortally frightened liberals might come out of the mousehole of reaction.
In other words, in advocating a softening (and ultimately the outright abandonment) of the Marxist position so as not to scare off the liberals, Bernstein himself demonstrated the folly in utilizing bourgeois parliamentarism toward a socialist end. Luxemburg argued that social reform could be used to give the working class vital experience, to ameliorate immediate conditions, and ultimately to reach the limits of reform, to show the entire working class that there are limits.
Legal reform and revolution are not different methods of historical progress that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. They are different moments in the development of class society which condition and complement each other…
But ultimately, Luxemburg insisted that the transition to socialism must be revolutionary and involve a seizure of power.
In the history of bourgeois society, legislative reform served generally to strengthen the rising class until the latter felt sufficiently strong to seize political power, to overturn the existing juridical system and to construct a new one.
In effect, every legal constitution is the product of a revolution. In the history of classes, revolution is the act of political creation while legislation is the political expression of the life of a society that has already come into being. Work for legal reforms does not itself contain its own driving force independent from revolution. During every historical period, work for reforms is carried on only in the direction given it by the impetus of the last revolution, and continues as long as that impulsion continues to make itself felt.
It is absolutely false and totally unhistorical to represent work for reforms as a drawn-out revolution, and revolution as a condensed series of reforms… He who pronounces himself in favor of the method of legal reforms in place of and as opposed to the conquest of political power and social revolution does not really choose a more tranquil, surer and slower road to the same goal. He chooses a different goal.
If one takes the path of reform as opposed to revolution, she asserted, one chooses a modification of the old order, not the institution of a new one. This staunch commitment to revolution and against revisionism catapulted Luxemburg into a position of respect within the SPD and internationally, and she became a leading figure in the fight against reformist tendencies which were coming to dominate the Second International.
The mass strike and spontaneity
In 1905, revolution broke out in Russia, and Rosa went to Warsaw to participate in it. At the core of the revolution was a massive, spontaneous mass strike, and out of this experience came Luxemburg’s work, The Mass Strike, the Party, and the Trade Unions (1906). Among other things, this treatise challenged the notion that revolution could not take place in “backward” countries. Furthermore, it contained some of Luxemburg’s earliest formulations of her ideas regarding the role of spontaneity in the revolutionary process. In her words, “the masses do not exist to be schoolmastered.”
Rosa clearly believed in vanguard parties, in militant and disciplined political organization. However, more than many others, she also championed the role of spontaneity in shaping a revolutionary movement.
On the basis of a decision of the party leadership and of party discipline a single short demonstration may well be arranged… These demonstrations, however, differ from an actual period of revolutionary mass strikes… A mass strike born of pure discipline and enthusiasm will, at best, merely play the role of an episode, of a symptom of the fighting mood of the working class upon which, however, the conditions of a peaceful period are reflected.
If, however, the direction of the mass strike in the sense of command over its origin, and in the sense of the calculating and reckoning of the cost, is a matter of revolutionary period itself, the directing of the mass strike becomes, in an altogether different sense, the duty of Social Democracy and its leading organs. Instead of puzzling their heads with the technical side, with the mechanism of the mass strike, the Social Democrats are called upon to assume political leadership in the midst of the revolutionary period.
In a word, Luxemburg believed in the necessity of party leadership, but she challenged traditional ideas about the nature of this leadership held at the time by the German Social-Democratic Party and others. Revolution cannot be willed by leaders or prophets; it emerges spontaneously as the product of numerous interplaying factors, as a result of particular conditions. In a situation which is already revolutionary, a party must take political leadership. But this leadership is merely made up of the most highly developed members of the working class, the party emerges out of the working class itself, and the slogans and tactics which are developed are discovered by the moving masses.
Writings on imperialism
In the intervening years between the revolution of 1905 and the October Revolution of 1917, Luxemburg wrote a great deal. Certainly the most important of these works is The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to the Economic Explanation of Imperialism (1913). Lenin’s well-known work on the subject holds that imperialism is the result of a highly-developed stage of monopoly capitalism. However, Luxemburg deduced that imperialism is not merely “the highest stage of capitalism”—rather, it has been essential to capital accumulation from the start. Condensed, the argument goes as follows:
In order for capitalism to function, the total value that is produced in the economy must be realized, i.e. purchased, used up. Who realizes this value? It is obviously not the workers; the origin of profit is that workers produce more value than they are paid, so they do not have the means to realize all of the value. The bourgeoisie cannot realize it either, because the laws of competition demand that they reinvest some of this value. Reinvested value today creates more surplus value tomorrow, so it does not solve the problem. In the end, capitalist production creates value it can never realize, and if this continues, severe crises of overproduction occur. How does capitalism deal with this? Luxemburg argues that this extra value that cannot be realized within the sphere of capitalism can be absorbed by dumping resources into exploiting the non capitalist world.
From the very beginning, the forms and laws of capitalist production aim to comprise the entire globe as a store of productive forces. Capital, impelled to appropriate productive forces for purposes of exploitation, ransacks the whole world, it procures its means of production from all corners of the earth, seizing them, if necessary by force, from all levels of civilization and from all forms of society. The problem of the material elements of capitalist accumulation, far from being solved by the material form of the surplus value that has been produced, takes on quite a different aspect. It becomes necessary for capital progressively to dispose ever more fully of the whole globe, to acquire an unlimited choice of means of production, with regard to both quality and quantity, so as to find productive employment for the surplus value it has realized.
In this light, we see that imperialism is not a consequence of “bad policy” or the action of “greedy individuals.” Rather, imperialism is essential to the continued functioning of capitalism itself. From the dissolution of primitive communism, to the exploitation of the Americas; the economic expansion of the capitalist world during the “progressive era”, to the World Wars; the international meddling of the IMF, to the seemingly endless military interventions today, imperialism has walked hand in hand with capitalism. Imperialism is a fundamental consequence of the laws of capitalist production, and it will not cease until that mode of production is uprooted.
The Russian Revolution
Times would soon become grim for the socialist movement in Germany. In August of 1914, at the outset of WWI, the SPD voted for war credits in the German parliament. Luxemburg was anguished by the betrayal, but she continued anti-war work along with her comrade Karl Liebknecht. Rosa would be imprisoned for this in 1915, as was Liebknecht the following year.
However, in October (by the Russian calendar) of 1917, the Bolsheviks were successful in taking power in Russia. In 1918, writing from prison, Luxemburg wrote her response titled The Russian Revolution, which contains her oft-cited critique of the Bolshevik project. Incidentally, this work is likely also responsible for the myth that Luxemburg and Lenin were opposed ideologically. In truth, all evidence points to the fact that although Lenin and Luxemburg had disagreements, they were in fact fairly good friends and agreed on a great deal. It is also important to remember that The Russian Revolution is ultimately a defense of the Bolsheviks and of the October Revolution. In praise of the revolution and in scathing criticism of German Social Democracy and its betrayal of principles in support of imperialist war, Luxemburg wrote,
The Russian Revolution is the mightiest event of the World War. Its outbreak, its unexampled radicalism, its enduring consequences constitute the clearest condemnation of the lying phrases which official Social-Democracy so zealously deployed at the beginning of the war as an ideological cover for German imperialism’s campaign of conquest.
Luxemburg was certainly not advocating an anti-Lenin or anti-Bolshevik position, as she insisted that the Bolshevik party was “the only one in Russia which grasped the true interest of the revolution…” Here she also offered a searing dismissal of the Mensheviks and others who claimed Russia was “unripe” for socialism, whose tactics she accused of having a “utopian and reactionary character.”
Hardened in their addiction to the myth of the bourgeois character of the Russian Revolution—for the time being, you see, Russia is not supposed to be ripe for a social revolution!—they clung desperately to a coalition with the bourgeois liberals.
On the other hand, according to Rosa,
the Bolsheviks solved the famous problem of ‘winning a majority of the people,’ which problem has ever weighed on the German Social-Democracy like a nightmare… Only a party which knows how to lead, that is, to advance things, wins support in stormy times… All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western Social-Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks.
To claim that Luxemburg’s position was anything but one of support of the October Revolution and of the Bolsheviks is simply in ignorance of the facts.
Nonetheless, Luxemburg did make in The Russian Revolution a sympathetic critique of some of the actions of the Bolsheviks post-revolution. Namely, she criticized the insistence of Lenin upon self-determination for the nations formerly in the Russian empire, who then promptly allied themselves with Germany in its attack on the Soviets. She also argued that the giving away of land to the peasants instead of nationalizing it would lead to mass starvation and to further difficulties in achieving the socialist aim in the long run. But perhaps her most important insights were into the limitations on democracy in Soviet Russia. In particular, she took issue with the suppression of political organization outside a single party.
Luxemburg famously said,
Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical notion of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome, and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege.
The tacit assumption under Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of a revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—not the case. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as a social, economic, and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future.
Though she thoroughly endorsed the idea of dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. of rule by the working class, Luxemburg believed that mass democracy after the revolution was an essential characteristic of this dictatorship.
[The working class] should and must at once undertake socialist measures in the most energetic, unyielding, and unhesitant fashion, in other words, exercise a dictatorship, but a dictatorship of a class, not of a party or of a clique—dictatorship of a class, that means in the broadest public form on the basis of the most active, unlimited participation of the mass of the people, of unlimited democracy.
Yes dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished.
Rosa advocated not democracy over dictatorship, but democracy and dictatorship. Her insistence upon expanded democracy in Russia was not based on some liberal sympathy for the ousted bourgeoisie; rather, she believed that the continued rule of the working class depended on it.
Political freedom provides an expedient way to correct the errors in the policy of the revolutionary party which will undoubtedly happen given the experimental nature of socialism, Luxemburg insisted. Without the freedom to organize outside a single party, “life dies out in every public institution,” and should the party become co-opted by unsavory interests or simply err greatly, without expansive political freedoms, little can be done to oppose this.
Nevertheless, Rosa acknowledged the necessity of the suppression of some political rights in Russia given the nation’s dire situation of civil war and isolation. She argued that the expansions of democracy she advocated would only be possible in Russia if a revolution were successful in Germany.
Let the German Government Socialists cry that the rule of the Bolsheviks in Russia is a distorted expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat. If it was or is such, that is only because it is a product of the behavior of the German proletariat, in itself a distorted expression of the socialist class struggle. All of us are subject to the laws of history, and it is only internationally that the socialist order of society can be realized. The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of the historical possibilities. They are not supposed to perform miracles.
Always an internationalist, she implored the German working class that it was its imperative to rise up and support their Russian comrades. Unfortunately this was not to be.
The Spartacus League and the German Revolution
The anti-war writings of Luxemburg and others during WWI helped form The Spartacus League, a revolutionary group in Germany initially headed by Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, though with both of them in prison by 1916, the leadership eventually came to Leo Jogiches. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Jogiches, The Spartacus League was able to continue its existence covertly, pursuing a wide-spread anti-war campaign, distributing leaflets written by Luxemburg which were smuggled out of prison.
German sentiment against the war increased, and in June of 1918, there was a mass strike, dubbed a “dress rehearsal” for revolution. Then in October, following the collapse of the German front and a mutiny of sailors, revolution broke out. Political prisoners including Luxemburg were freed in early November. The German government panicked, the Kaiser resigned, and SPD leader Friedrich Ebert was appointed chancellor. The new government was not to be revolutionary, however. Ebert once declared, “I hate revolution like a mortal sin.”
December 31 of 1918 marked the formation of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), as tensions within the nation brewed, and as opposition to the SPD government increased. On January 4, the Berlin Chief of Police Emil Eichhorn, who was connected to left-wing organizations, was dismissed by the SPD government. The following day, 100,000 people took to the streets in protest. Workers occupied press offices and those of the SPD’s central party organs. Shortly thereafter, a coalition of organizations including the KPD voted to overthrow the government.
However, the Communist Party was still a young organization, and it failed to gain support of the workers and soldiers in Berlin. Ultimately the revolution failed, and Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were forced into hiding. The SPD, of which Rosa had once been a notable member, now called for her head and those of her comrades.
On January 15, 1919, a section of Freikorps—a volunteer army of proto-fascists—captured Luxemburg and Liebknecht using weapons supplied to them by the SPD government. That evening, both Rosa and Karl were brutally beaten and murdered.
Rosa Luxemburg was known primarily for her political and theoretical work, but she was far more than that. She was as committed an activist and a revolutionary as she was an influential thinker. She was known to be a talented orator, and people flocked to hear her speak. Her fiery intellect and razor wit inspired her allies and struck fear into the hearts of her foes.
Privately, Rosa was warm and gentle. She was a lover of animals; she enjoyed watching the birds outside her window, and she had a pet cat named Mimi, with whom she ate at the table. Rosa assuredly had a romantic side, as is revealed by her private letters to Leo Jogiches and others published after her death, though her ideological development and political work continued independently of her lovers. She was not defined by her relationships. She said after terminating her romantic involvement with Jogiches, “I am I once more now that I am free of Leo.”
Luxemburg was a feminist. She wrote occasionally on the subject of women, though not nearly as extensively as other topics. However, she thoroughly supported the work of her close friend Clara Zetkin, an extremely important feminist thinker and activist. Together they made demands far more radical than what bourgeois feminist were offering at the time, challenging the framework of patriarchy itself as opposed to the milquetoast platforms of liberals, who often stopped short of advocating real political or economic equality.
Most of all though, Rosa always remained a staunch advocate for the working people. To her last day, she passionately defended the workers’ struggle, confident in its eventual triumph. In Order Reigns in Berlin (1919), her last known words published the day before her murder, Luxemburg wrote,
The leadership has failed. Even so, the leadership can and must be recreated from the masses and out of the masses. The masses are the decisive element, they are the rock on which the final victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were on the heights; they have developed this ‘defeat’ into one of the historical defeats which are the pride and strength of international socialism. And that is why the future victory will bloom from this ‘defeat’.
‘Order reigns in Berlin!’ You stupid lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will already ‘raise itself with a rattle’ and announce with fanfare, to your terror:
I was, I am, I shall be!