Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish Marxist thinker and organizer, and one of the pillars of the German Revolution and the resistance against Nazism was born 150 years ago last month on March 5. She is, without question, one of the towering figures in the entire history of the socialist movement. A Polish and Jewish woman who grew up on one of the outposts of czarist Russia, she was a rebel from her school days. Towards the end of her school days, she was a member of Proletariat, the pioneering socialist party in Poland, which shifted from terrorism to mass politics and was punished by the heavy hand of the Russian autocracy by being virtually destroyed when 4 of its leaders were publicly hanged in 1886.
Luxemburg quickly opted for exile three years later in 1889. As her political positions developed, she was not unafraid to take on figures and theorists bigger in stature than herself. For example, she rejected Karl Marx’s famous support for Polish independence in contrast to her own internationalism, something which was to set her up repeatedly against the leadership of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the party she was a member of for most of her short life in subsequent decades; her critique of Marx in Volume II of his Kapital; her battles with Kautsky and Bernstein, the presumed heirs of the Marxist mantle, in her book Reform or Revolution.
Sally Campbell’s short new biography of Rosa Luxemburg quotes the Belgian socialist leader Emile Vanderwelde, who could not help noticing Luxemburg’s memorable but unscheduled cameo appearance at the Third Congress of the Socialist International in 1893:
“Rosa, 23 years old at the time, was quite unknown except in a few socialist circles in Germany and Poland…Her opponents had a great deal of trouble holding their ground against her. I can see her now: how she sprang to her feet out of the sea of delegates and jumped onto a chair to make herself better heard. Small, delicate and dainty in a summer dress which cleverly concealed her physical defects, she advocated her cause with such fiery words that she enthralled and won over the great majority of the congress.”
It was in the German political theatre of the early 20th century, however, where Luxemburg made her mark as a theorist and orator.
Campbell’s book also restores the proper context to Luxemburg’s enlightening and in many ways prescient response to the two Russian Revolutions of 1905 and of 1917, which was rather unfortunately completely glossed over by Margarethe von Trotta’s otherwise excellent 1986 biopic of her; and of her earlier interactions with her fellow revolutionary of the Third International, Lenin despite their considerable differences. Luxemburg’s differences with Lenin primarily dealt with party organization and democracy and are dealt with more fully in Chapter 6. The writer marshals her evidence well. For example, she quotes Luxemburg’s essay The Russian Revolution (dates 28 January 1905) which broke away from the conventional wisdom on the left at that time that the revolution of 1905 was merely a bourgeois democratic revolution. The writer also debunks what various elements have sad to be disagreements between Lenin and Luxemburg. These wildly exaggerated allegations strike one as being similar to those that that were also played up later between Lenin another leader of the Second International, the Italian Antonio Gramsci.
Title: A Rebel’s Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Author: Sally Campbell
Publisher: Bookmarks Publications, London
In fact, Luxemburg was a highly original thinker with a profound understanding of the mass strike – ignored by the SPD to its detriment – as well as a sophisticated understanding of imperialism which deserves to be elevated with Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, most noticeably in her most important work, The Accumulation of Capital (1913).
With the beginning of the First World War and the hemorrhaging of the Second International, the pretensions of the SPD and its chief theorist, the ‘renegade’ Kautsky to being the leading party of the German proletariat were exposed, with their disastrous stance on favouring war credits, coming at the heels of its complete kowtowing to German nationalism – which was to foreshadow the tragedy of 1919. In fact, Lenin admitted to Luxemburg’s prescient predictions about Kautsky’s mercurial U-turns.
Luxemburg’s militant opposition to the war at home and support for internationalism abroad in opposition to her party’s position was amply vindicated when she spent virtually the entire period of WW1 behind wars. Her pithy description of her party’s war stance: ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite in peacetime, but slit one another’s throats in war!’ is oft-quoted but it is her Junius Pamphlet written in prison to oppose the SPD’s support for WW1 which quickly became a rallying point for anti-war socialists and deserves to be quoted more fully here:
“Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.
In fact, Luxemburg was a highly original thinker with a profound understanding of the mass strike
In the midst of this witches’ sabbath a catastrophe of world-historical proportions has happened: International Social Democracy has capitulated. To deceive ourselves about it, to cover it up, would be the most foolish, the most fatal thing the proletariat could do….
Imperialism and all its political brutality, the chain of incessant social catastrophes that it has let loose, is undoubtedly an historical necessity for the ruling classes of the contemporary capitalist world. Nothing would be more fatal for the proletariat than to delude itself into believing that it were possible after this war to rescue the idyllic and peaceful continuation of capitalism. However, the conclusion to be drawn by proletarian policy from the historical necessity of imperialism is that surrender to imperialism will mean living forever in its victorious shadow and eating from its leftovers….
It is our strength, our hope, that is mown down day after day like grass under the sickle. The best, most intelligent, most educated forces of international socialism, the bearers of the holiest traditions and the boldest heroes of the modern workers’ movement, the vanguard of the entire world proletariat, the workers of England, France, Belgium, Germany, Russia – these are the ones now being hamstrung and led to the slaughter.
The blood-letting of the June days  paralyzed the French workers’ movement for a decade and a half. Then the blood-letting of the Commune massacres again retarded it for more than a decade. What is now occurring is an unprecedented mass slaughter that is reducing the adult working population of all the leading civilized countries to women, old people, and cripples. This blood-letting threatens to bleed the European workers’ movement to death. Another such world war and the outlook for socialism will be buried beneath the rubble heaped up by imperialist barbarism. This is more [significant] than the ruthless destruction of Liege and the Rheims cathedral. This is an assault, not on the bourgeois culture of the past, but on the socialist culture of the future, a lethal blow against that force which carries the future of humanity within itself and which alone can bear the precious treasures of the past into a better society. Here capitalism lays bare its death’s head; here it betrays the fact that its historical rationale is used up; its continued domination is no longer reconcilable to the progress of humanity.
Her killers bludgeoned her with rifle blows and tossed her into the waters of a canal. Along the way, she lost a shoe. Some hand picked it up: that shoe dropped in the mud
The madness will cease and the bloody demons of hell will vanish only when workers in Germany and France, England and Russia finally awake from their stupor, extend to each other a brotherly hand, and drown out the bestial chorus of imperialist war-mongers and the shrill cry of capitalist hyenas with labor’s old and mighty battle cry:
Proletarians of all lands, unite!”
Much of Luxemburg’s argument about the development of capitalism and spread of imperialism builds on her aforementioned earlier well-known treatise on the accumulation of capital.
Luxemburg enthused over the revolutionary events in Russia on October 1919 from jail calling it a ‘world-historical deed’; but a year later took issue with the Bolsheviks on the question of democracy. Here Campbell does well to debunk the claims of subsequent ‘Marxists’ who question Luxemburg’s ‘Leninist’ credentials. Not always aware of the exigencies of Lenin and his comrades in making the Revolution, Luxemburg however maintained her sympathetic but not uncritical support to the Bolsheviks.
The SPD’s collaborationist stand on WW1 eventually contributed to its split in 1916 and the formation of the Spartacus League and later the Communist Party of Germany. It also meant the beginning of the German Revolution as the unpopularity of the war forced an uprising against the ruling elite from below in Berlin in the first week of 1919. Campbell sums up the tragic predicament of Luxemburg and her comrades at this juncture. “But Luxemburg and the revolutionaries had no counterweight of their own – no serious organization capable of leading the revolution beyond a republic.”
Luxemburg willy-nilly supported the uprising despite her objections to such a seizure of power.
As the newly-installed government of Friedrich Ebert sought to consolidate power at the top, the writing was on the wall for Luxemburg and her Spartacus League co-founder Karl Liebknecht. What followed was the worst tragedy for European socialism since the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, almost half a century before. Luxemburg was murdered, alongwith Liebknecht, by right-wing paramilitaries during the Spartacist Uprising on January 15, 1919.
Her killers bludgeoned her with rifle blows and tossed her into the waters of a canal. Along the way, she lost a shoe. Some hand picked it up: that shoe dropped in the mud.
Rosa longed for a world where justice would not be sacrificed in the name of freedom, nor freedom sacrificed in the name of justice. Every day, some hand picks up that banner – dropped in the mud like Rosa’s shoe.
Campbell’s book is a useful primer on one of the neglected pillars of the Second International; she does a good job of what she set out to do in Chapter 1: ‘to cut through some of the fog surrounding Rosa Luxemburg and restore her to her place as “Red Rosa”’; furthermore, it convincingly shows her to be a pacifist, a Leninist and one of the real inheritors of Marx’s mantle, as well as a professional whole-timer revolutionary, contrary to the claims of her detractors. But the reader would have liked to have learnt more about how Luxemburg was a feminist icon.
How she might have influenced the trajectory of European socialism is an open question – much like that about her similarly short-lived contemporaries Lenin and Gramsci – but it’s hard to disagree with her old comrade Clara Zetkin’s conclusion, that ‘She was the sharp sword, the living flame of the revolution.’
Meanwhile Merkel’s Germany will not be marking Luxemburg’s 150th anniversary. SPD Chairman Saskia Esken said recently, “The question of who Rosa Luxemburg belongs to is no longer relevant for me today.”
Burying Luxemburg’s work was a lasting ‘achievement’ of the post-Nazi ‘Grand Coalition’ of the parties CDU/CSU and SPD and the unification. More recently, Luxemburg was the subject of a body identification controversy pertaining to the discovery of her alleged corpse. Time then to settle the controversy and revive some of her ideas. Future generations in Germany might realize that Luxemburg still has a lot more to offer than her fellow-German theoretician Hannah Arendt.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org