March 6, 2021
Rosa Luxemburg was one of the most popular communist leader. She strived all her life for the upliftment and betterment of the proletariat class. Luxemburg was a Polish Marxist, philosopher, economist, anti-war activist and revolutionary socialist who became a naturalized German citizen at the age of 28. She was born on 5 March, 1871 and this March marked her 150th birth anniversary !
Successively, she was a member of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
After the SPD supported German involvement in World War I in 1915, Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht co-founded the anti-war Spartacus League (Spartakusbund) which eventually became the KPD. During the November Revolution, she co-founded the newspaper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the central organ of the Spartacist movement. Luxemburg considered the Spartacist uprising of January 1919 a blunder, but supported the attempted overthrow of the government and rejected any attempt at a negotiated solution. Friedrich Ebert’s majority SPD government crushed the revolt and the Spartakusbund by sending in the Freikorps, government-sponsored paramilitary groups consisting mostly of World War I veterans. Freikorps troops captured and summarily executed Luxemburg and Liebknecht during the rebellion.
Due to her pointed criticism of both the Leninist and the more moderate social democratic schools of socialism, Luxemburg has had a some what ambivalent reception among scholars and theorists of the political left. Nonetheless, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were extensively idolized as communist martyrs by the East German communist regime. The German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution asserts that idolization of Luxemburg and Liebknecht is an important tradition of the German far-left.
Luxemburg was born on 5 March 1871 in Zamość.The Luxemburg family were Polish Jews living in Russian-controlled Poland. She was the fifth and youngest child of Eliasz Luxemburg, a timber trader, and his wife, Line Löwenstein. Luxemburg later stated that her father imparted an interest in liberal ideas in her while her mother was religious and well-read with books kept at home.The family spoke Polish and German, and Luxemburg also learned Russian.The family moved to Warsaw in 1873.After being bed bound with a hip problem at the age of five, she was left with a permanent limp.
In 1884, she enrolled at an all-girls’ gymnasium (secondary school) in Warsaw, which she attended until 1887. The Zweite Frauengymnasium was a school that only rarely accepted Polish applicants and acceptance of Jewish children was even more exceptional. The children were only permitted to speak Russian. From 1886, Luxemburg belonged to the Polish left-wing Proletariat Party (founded in 1882, anticipating the Russian parties by twenty years). She began political activities by organizing a general strike; as a result, four of the Proletariat Party leaders were put to death and the party was disbanded, though the remaining members, including Luxemburg, kept meeting in secret. In 1887, she passed her Matura (secondary school graduation) examinations.
Journey to Switzerland
After fleeing to Switzerland to escape detention in 1889, she attended the University of Zurich (as did the socialists Anatoly Lunacharsky and Leo Jogiches), where she studied philosophy, history, politics, economics, and mathematics. She specialized in Staatswissenschaft (political science), economic and stock exchange crises, and the Middle Ages. Her doctoral dissertation “The Industrial Development of Poland” (Die Industrielle Entwicklung Polens) was officially presented in the spring of 1897 at the University of Zurich which awarded her a Doctor of Law degree. Her dissertation was published by Duncker and Humblot in Leipzig in 1898. She was an oddity in Zurich as she was one of the very few women with a doctorate.
Politically Active Days
She plunged immediately into the politics of international Marxism, following in the footsteps of Georgi Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod. In 1893, with Leo Jogiches and Julian Marchlewski (alias Julius Karski), Luxemburg founded the newspaper Sprawa Robotnicza (The Workers’ Cause) which opposed the nationalist policies of the Polish Socialist Party. Luxemburg believed that an independent Poland could arise and exist only through socialist revolutions in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. She maintained that the struggle should be against capitalism, not just for Polish independence. Her position of denying a national right of self-determination under socialism provoked a philosophic disagreement with Vladimir Lenin. She and Leo Jogiches co-founded the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) party, after merging Congress Poland’s and Lithuania’s social democratic organizations. Despite living in Germany for most of her adult life, Luxemburg was the principal theoretician of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP, later the SDKPiL) and led the party in a partnership with Jogiches, its principal organizer.
Next Step to Germany
Luxemburg wanted to move to Germany to be at the centre of the party struggle, but she had no way of obtaining permission to remain there indefinitely. In April 1897 she married the son of an old friend, Gustav Lübeck, in order to gain a German citizenship. They never lived together and they formally divorced five years later. She returned briefly to Paris, then moved permanently to Berlin to begin her fight for Eduard Bernstein’s constitutional reform movement. Luxemburg hated the stifling conservatism of Berlin. She despised Prussian men and resented what she saw as the grip of urban capitalism on social democracy. In the Social Democratic Party of Germany’s women’s section, she met Clara Zetkin, of whom she made a lifelong friend. Between 1907 and his conscription in 1915, she was involved in a love affair with Clara’s younger son, Kostja Zetkin, to whom approximately 600 surviving letters (now mostly published) bear testimony. Luxemburg was a member of the uncompromising left-wing of the SPD. Their clear position was that the objectives of liberation for the industrial working class and all minorities could be achieved by revolution only.
The recently published Letters of Rosa Luxemburg shed important light on her life in Germany. As Irene Gammel writes in a review of the English translation of the book in The Globe and Mail: “The three decades covered by the 230 letters in this collection provide the context for her major contributions as a political activist, socialist theorist and writer”. Her reputation was tarnished by Joseph Stalin’s cynicism in Questions Concerning the History of Bolshevism. In his rewriting of Russian events, he placed the blame for the theory of permanent revolution on Luxemburg’s shoulders, with faint praise for her attacks on Karl Kautsky which she commenced in 1910.
According to Gammel, “In her controversial tome of 1913, The Accumulation of Capital, as well as through her work as a co-founder of the radical Spartacus League, Luxemburg helped to shape Germany’s young democracy by advancing an international, rather than a nationalist, outlook. This farsightedness partly explains her remarkable popularity as a socialist icon and its continued resonance in movies, novels and memorials dedicated to her life and oeuvre”. Gammel also notes that for Luxemburg “the revolution was a way of life” and yet that the letters also challenge the stereotype of “Red Rosa” as a ruthless fighter. However, The Accumulation of Capital sparked angry accusations from the Communist Party of Germany. In 1923, Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow denounced the work as “errors”, a derivative work of economic miscalculation known as “spontaneity”.
When Luxemburg moved to Germany in May 1898, she settled in Berlin. She was active there in the left- wing of the SPD in which she sharply defined the border between the views of her faction and the revisionism theory of Eduard Bernstein. She attacked him in her brochure Social Reform or Revolution?, released in September 1898. Luxemburg’s rhetorical skill made her a leading spokesperson in denouncing the SPD’s reformist parliamentary course. She argued that the critical difference between capital and labour could only be countered if the proletariat assumed power and effected revolutionary changes in methods of production. She wanted the revisionists ousted from the SPD. That did not occur, but Kautsky’s leadership retained a Marxist influence on its programme.
From 1900, Luxemburg published analyses of contemporary European socio-economic problems in newspapers. Foreseeing war, she vigorously attacked what she saw as German militarism and imperialism.Luxemburg wanted a general strike to rouse the workers to solidarity and prevent the coming war. However, the SPD leaders refused and she broke with Kautsky in 1910. Between 1904 and 1906, she was imprisoned for her political activities on three occasions. In 1907, she went to the Russian Social Democrats’ Fifth Party Day in London, where she met Vladimir Lenin. At the socialist Second International Congress in Stuttgart, her resolution demanding that all European workers’ parties should unite in attempting to stop the war was accepted.
Luxemburg taught Marxism and economics at the SPD’s Berlin training centre. Her former student Friedrich Ebert became the SPD leader and later the Weimar Republic’s first President. In 1912, Luxemburg was the SPD representative at the European Socialists congresses. With French socialist Jean Jaurès, Luxemburg argued that European workers’ parties should organize a general strike when war broke out. In 1913, she told a large meeting: “If they think we are going to lift the weapons of murder against our French and other brethren, then we shall shout: ‘We will not do it!'” However, when nationalist crises in the Balkans erupted to violence and then war in 1914, there was no general strike and the SPD majority supported the war as did the French Socialists. The Reichstag unanimously agreed to financing the war. The SPD voted in favour of that and agreed to a truce (Burgfrieden) with the Imperial government, promising to refrain from any strikes during the war. This led Luxemburg to contemplate suicide as the revisionism she had fought since 1899 had triumphed.
In response, Luxemburg organised anti-war demonstrations in Frankfurt, calling for conscientious objection to military conscription and the refusal to obey orders. On that account, she was imprisoned for a year for “inciting to disobedience against the authorities’ law and order”. Shortly after her death, her fame was alluded to by Grigory Zinoviev at the Petrograd Soviet on 18 January 1919 as he adjudged her astute assessment of Bolshevism.
In August 1914, Luxemburg, along with Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and Franz Mehring, founded the Die Internationale (“The International”) group which became the Spartacus League in January 1916. They wrote illegal anti-war pamphlets pseudonymously signed Spartacus after the slave-liberating Thracian gladiator who opposed the Romans. Luxemburg’s pseudonym was Junius, after Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic. The Spartacus League vehemently rejected the SPD’s support in the Reichstag for funding the war, and sought to lead Germany’s proletariat towards an anti-war general strike. As a result, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were imprisoned in June 1916 for two and a half years. During imprisonment, Luxemburg was twice relocated, first to Posen (now Poznań), then to Breslau (now Wrocław).
Among them was The Russian Revolution, criticising the Bolsheviks, presciently warning of their dictatorship. Nonetheless, she continued to call for a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, albeit not of the one party Bolshevik model. In that context, she wrote the words “Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden” (“Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently”) and continues in the same chapter: “The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress”. Another article written in April 1915 when in prison and published and distributed illegally in June 1916 originally under the pseudonym Junius was Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie (The Crisis of Social Democracy), also known as the Junius-Broschüre or The Junius Pamphlet.
In 1917, the Spartacus League was affiliated with the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), founded by Hugo Haase and made up of anti-war former SPD members. In November 1918, the USPD and the SPD assumed power in the new republic upon the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm II. This followed the German Revolution that began with the Kiel mutiny, when workers’ and soldiers’ councils seized most of Germany to put an end to World War I and to the monarchy. The USPD and most of the SPD members supported the councils while the SPD leaders feared this could lead to a Räterepublik (council republic) like the soviets of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917.
Luxemburg was freed from prison in Breslau on 8 November 1918, three days before the armistice of 11 November 1918. One day later, Karl Liebknecht, who had also been freed from prison, proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic (Freie Sozialistische Republik) in Berlin. He and Luxemburg reorganised the Spartacus League and founded The Red Flag (Die Rote Fahne) newspaper, demanding amnesty for all political prisoners and the abolition of capital punishment in the essay Against Capital Punishment. On 14 December 1918, they published the new programme of the Spartacus League.
From 29 to 31 December 1918, they took part in a joint congress of the League, independent socialists and the International Communists of Germany (IKD) that led to the foundation on 1 January 1919 of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) under the leadership of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Luxemburg supported the new KPD’s participation in the Weimar National Assembly that founded the Weimar Republic, but she was out-voted and the KPD boycotted the elections.
In January 1919, a second revolutionary wave swept Berlin.Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. Nay, more; not merely are we today in a position to perform this task, nor merely is its performance a duty toward the proletariat, but our solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction.
Like Liebknecht, Luxemburg supported the violent putsch attempt. The Red Flag encouraged the rebels to occupy the editorial offices of the liberal press and later, all positions of power. On 8 January, Luxemburg’s Red Flag printed a public statement by her, in which she called for revolutionary violence and no negotiations with the revolution’s “mortal enemies”, the Friedrich Ebert-Philipp Scheidemann government.
In response to the uprising, German Chancellor and SPD leader Friedrich Ebert ordered the Freikorps to destroy the left-wing revolution, which was crushed by 11 January 1919. Luxemburg’s Red Flag falsely claimed that the rebellion was spreading across Germany. On 10 January, Luxemburg called for the murder of Scheidemann’s supporters and said they had earned their fate.The uprising was small-scale, had limited support and consisted of the occupation of a few newspaper buildings and the construction of street barricades. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were captured in Berlin on 15 January 1919 by the Rifle Division of the Cavalry Guards of the Freikorps (Garde-Kavallerie-Schützendivision). Its commander Captain Waldemar Pabst, with Lieutenant Horst von Pflugk-Harttung, questioned them under torture and then gave the order to summarily execute them. Luxemburg was knocked down with a rifle butt by the soldier Otto Runge, then shot in the head, either by Lieutenant Kurt Vogel or by Lieutenant Hermann Souchon. Her body was flung into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal. In the Tiergarten, Liebknecht was shot and his body, without a name, brought to a morgue.
After Rosa’s Death
The murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht inspired a new wave of violence in Berlin and across Germany. Thousands of members of the KPD as well as other revolutionaries and civilians were killed. Finally, the People’s Navy Division (Volksmarinedivision) and workers’ and soldiers’ councils which had moved to the political left disbanded. Luxemburg was held in high regard by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who recognised her revolutionary credentials at the Third International.
The last part of the German Revolution saw many instances of armed violence and strikes throughout Germany. Significant strikes occurred in Berlin, the Bremen Soviet Republic, Saxony, Saxe-Gotha, Hamburg, the Rhinelands and the Ruhr region. Last to strike was the Bavarian Soviet Republic which was suppressed on 2 May 1919.
More than four months after the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, on 1 June 1919, Luxemburg’s corpse was found and identified after an autopsy at the Charité hospital in Berlin. Otto Runge was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment (for “attempted manslaughter”) and Lieutenant Vogel to four months (for failing to report a corpse). However, Vogel escaped after a brief custody. Pabst and Souchon went unpunished.The Nazis later compensated Runge for having been jailed (he died in Berlin in Soviet custody after the end of World War II),and they merged the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützendivision into the SA. In an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel in 1962 and again in his memoirs, Pabst maintained that two leaders of the SPD, Defence Minister Gustav Noske and Chancellor Friedrich Ebert, had approved of his actions. His account has been neither confirmed nor denied since the case has not been examined by parliament or the courts. In 1993, Gietinger’s research on his access to the previously restricted papers of Pabst, held at the Federal Military Archives, found him as central to the planning of the murder of Luxemburg and the protection of those involved.
Luxemburg and Liebknecht were buried at the Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery in Berlin, where socialists and communists commemorate them yearly on the second Sunday of January. A great warrior was ever born who sacrificed her life for the human cause and revolution!