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Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919)


German revolutionary leader, journalist, and socialist theorist, who was killed in Berlin in 1919 during the German revolution. Rosa Luxemburg saw herself as a citizen of the proletariat. She lived the international life of a Socialist 'pilgrim', believing that only socialism could bring true freedom and social justice. Luxemburg was the advocate of mass action, spontaneity, and workers democracy, but her criticism of the "revisionists" and their ideological leader Edward Bernstein is considered her most important legacy to European political thought.

"Bourgeois class domination is undoubtedly an historical necessity, but, so too, the rising of the working class against it. Capital is an historical necessity, but, so too, its grave digger, the socialist proletariat." (in 'The Junius Pamphlet', 1916)

Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamosc, in Russian Poland, into a Jewish middle-class family. Rosa was the youngest of five children. Her father,  Eliasz Luxemburg,  managed a timber business; Lina Löwenstein, her mother, who was well read, observed Jewish custom by wearing a prayer shawl when lighting the candles at Shabbat. At the age of five Luxemburg became seriously ill and after recovering she walked with a limp; sciatic pain caused her much trouble for her whole life. Luxemburg grew up in Warsaw, where she was educated at the second girls' high school. Though she graduated with an excellet record, she was denied a gold medal due to her "rebellious attitude" towards the authorities.

From the age of 16  Luxemburg  participated in revolutionary activities, organized trade unions and strikes. During these years her favorite writer was the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, whose patriotism and life in political exile influenced her deeply. In 1889 Luxemburg went to Switzerland to continue her studies. Partly she was forced to flee from Warsaw because of her political activities.  To slip out of the country without notice, Luxemburg crossed the border in a peasant's cart, hiding  under a pile of straw.

Luxemburg entered the University of Zürich, which then admitted men and women on an equal basis, She first studied natural sciences and political economy, but in 1892 she changed to the faculty of law. Two years later Luxemburg researched at the major Polish library in Paris, where she started her career as a journalist. Her dissertation, completed in 1898, was entitled The Industrial Development of Poland.

Between the years 1892 and 1919 Luxemburg produced almost 700 articles, pamphlets, speeches, and books. As a speaker she had few equals  she even got flowers from those who listened her.  Luxemburg became one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, which was in constant conflict with the Polish Socialist Party (PPS)  over the question of nationalism.

Reform or Revolution (1899), her defense of Marxism, opposed Edward Bernstein's reformist position and criticized Bernstein's revisionist theories in Evolutionary Socialism (1898). Bernstein had published also in Neue Zeit a series of articles, in which he had attempted to disprove some of the basic doctrines of Marxism. He rejected Marx's theories of class struggle and concluded that revolution was unnecessary. Luxemburg believed that her work would make the "old guard" of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to view her as a serious political thinker and leader. "Since the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the social democratic movement from bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois radicalism, the only factor transforming the entire labor movement from a vain effort to repair the capitalist order into a class struggle against this order, for the suppression of this order  the question: "Reform or revolution?" as it is posed by Bernstein, equals for the social democracy the question: "The be or not to be?" In the controversy with Bernstein and his followers, everybody in the party ought to understand clearly it is not a question of this or that method of struggle, or the use of this or that set of tactics, but the of the very existence of the social democratic movement." (in Reform or Revolution)

To obtain German citizenship, Luxemburg married Gustav Lübeck, the youngest son of her friend. Luxemburg became in 1898 a leader of the left wing of the SPD and participated in the second International and in the 1905 revolution in Russian Poland. SPD was the largest party in the Socialist International and it had transformed from an underground organization into a mass party, containing as Luxemburg said "the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat".

After insulting the Kaiser, Luxemburg spend in 1904 a short period in prison in Zwickau. In the same year she also drafted SDKPL (Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania) party programe What Do We Want? During the 1905 Russian Revolution she developed the idea that socialism is a revolutionary process which transforms political and economic relations towards ever greater democratic control by the workers themselves.

In 1906 Luxemburg was arrested in Warsaw but released finally on health grounds. She returned to Germany where she taught at SPD party school in Berlin until 1914 and developed ideas about general strike as a political weapon.  In her major theoretical work, The Accumulation of Capital (1912), Luxemburg tried to prove that capitalism was doomed and would inevitably collapse on economic grounds. After differences with moderate German socialists, she founded with Karl Liebknecht the radical Spartacus League in 1916. She also drafted the Spartacists programme Leitsätze. Two years later the organization became the German Communist Party.

During World War I Luxemburg spent long times in prison, writing her Spartakusbriefe and Die Russisce Revolution, where she welcomed the October Revolution as a precursor of world revolution. In 'The Junius Pamphlet'  (1916), written under the pseudonym of Junius, she argued that the choice of Socialism or Barbarism is a world-historical turning point which demands resolute action by the proletariat. Luxemburg's letters to Sophie Liebknecht reveal that she was able to maintain a cheerful spirit in even the most stressful of times. From her cell's window she could catch glimpses of treetops above the prison wall. "The windows look to the northwest, so that I often see splendid sunsets, and you know how the sight of rose-tinted clouds can carry me away from everything and make up for all else."

Luxemburg participated reluctantly in the Spartacist uprising in Berlin against the government. The uprising, which failed, was a defining moment among others for Adolf Hitler. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested in 1919. While being transported to prison, she and Liebknecht were murdered on the night of 15/16 on January 1919 by German Freikorps soldiers. Luxemburg's body was thrown into the Landwehr canal and found on May. She was buried on June 13 in Friedrichsfeld cemetery, where the graves of Liebknecht and the other killed revolutionaries situated. Her burial became a silent mass demonstration, witnessed by a number of correspondents, including the American screenwriter Ben Hecht.

Luxemburg's lover Leo Jogiches was murdered in 1919. However, their affair had already ended in 1906  Leo had gone too far in his infidelity. Just before his death, he had decided with Clara Zetkin and Mathild Jacob to publish Luxemburg's collected works. The project proceeded slowly because at that time Lenin's critical opinions of Luxemburg's thought were not easy to ignore. Lenin saw that she underestimated nationalist ideology, underrated the role of the Communist party, and emphasized to much the power of the mass action. Luxemburg was critical about Lenin's acceptance of the idea of national self-determination. She believed  that new nationalist states only slow down the process of revolution. Luxemburg had not supported Polish independence in 1896.

When Lenin visited Luxemburg in 1911, her beloved cat Mimi "rolled on her back and behaved enticingly towards him, but when he tried to approach her she whacked him with a paw and snarled like a tiger." In 'Organisationsfragen der russischen Sozialdemokraten' (1904) she criticized Lenin's theory of revolutionary vanguard centralism. Luxemburg argued that there could be no real socialism without democracy. Later Stalinist study was not very happy about her  her unorthodoxy was nearly as dangerous as Trotsky's. Stalin claimed in 'Questions Concerning the History of Bolshevism' (1931), contrary  to fact, that Luxemburg was responsible for the theory of permanent revolution, which prompted Trotsky to defended her in his article 'Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg'.  Luxemburg's collected works did not appear until 1970-75 in DDR.

"The list of people with whom Simone Weil was politically associated reads like an almanac of the French Left. Thévenon, Guérin, Battaille, Serret. Simone saw in Rosa Luxemburg (d. 1919) a kindred soul. 'Her life, her work, her letters affirm life and not death,' wrote Simone. 'Rosa aspired to action, not to sacrifice. In this sense, there is nothing Christian in her temperament.'" (in The Left Hand of God by Adolf Holl, 1997)

Thoroughful reevaluation of Luxemburg's work began in Germany in the 1970s. Her theories were considered as an alternative to Communism or Social Democracy. When Marxist study lost its attraction in the 1980s, Luxemburg arose still interest among feminist theorist. Luxemburg herself did not participate into women's rights movement; women's liberation was for her part of the liberation from the oppression of capitalism. However, she saw that socialist emancipation is incomplete without women's emancipation. Raya Dunayevskaya argues in her study Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation, and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution (1981) that Luxemburg's years after the break-up with her lover Leo Jogiches were not "lost years," as J.P. Nettl presents in his large biography (1966). Dunayevskaya documents Luxemburg's myriad activities and theoretical work including Mass Strike. In the 1980s Margareta von Trotta's film Rosa Luxemburg (1986), starring Barbara Sukowa, gained commercial success. The film was partly based on Annelies Laschitza's studies. However, feminist critic objected Trotta's conventional (melo)dramatic narration.

For further reading: Rosa Luxemburg by Paul Frölich (1904); 'Some questions regarding the history of Bolshevism' by J. Stalin, in Stalin, Leninism (1933); Rosa Luxemburg. Gedanke und Tat by Paul Frölich (1939); Rosa Luxemburg by J.P. Nettl (1966, 2 vols.); 'Notes of a publicist' by V.I. Lenin, in Collected Works, vol. 33 (1966); 'The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg' by G. Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness (1968); 'Hands off Rosa Luxemburg' by L. Trotsky, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (1970); The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg by N. Geras (1976); Rosa Luxemburg, Woman Liberations and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution by Raya Dunayewskaja (1981); Rosa Luxemburg. Ein Leben für die Freiheit by Fredrich Hetman (1987); Rosa Luxemburg. A Life by Elzbieta Ettinger (1988); Rosa Luxemburg. A Life for the Internationale by Richard Abraham (1989); Rosa Luxemburg - Die Rote Demokratie by Peter Bierl (1991); Une Femme rebelle by Max Gallo (1992); Philosophia: The Thought of Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil, and Hannah Arendt by Andrea Nye (1994); Eine Leiche im Landwehrkanal. Die Ermordung der Rosa Luxemburg by Klaus Gietinger (1995); Im Lebensrausche trotz alledem by Annelies Laschitza (1996); Rosa Luxemburg and the Noble Dream by Donald E. Shepardson (1996); Sozialismus oder Barbarei by Virve Manninen (1996); Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary for Our Times by Stephen Eric Bronner (1997); Rosa Luxemburg und Leo Jogiches by Maria Seideman (1998); Die Welt is so schön bei allem Graus by Annelies Laschitza (1998); Rosa und Karl by Manfred Scharrer (2002) 

Selected works:

  • Die industrielle Entwicklung Polens, 1898 (doctoral thesis) - The Industrial Development of Poland (translated by Tessa DeCarlo, 1977)
  • Sozialreform oder Revolution?, 1899 - Reform or Revolution (tr. by Edith Harvey, 1909; "Integer" from the 2nd edition of 1908, 1937)
  • 'Organisationsfragen der russischen Sozialdemokraten', 1904 (in Neue Zeit 2)
  • Z doby rewolucyjnej. Co dalej?, 1906
  • Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften, 1906 - The Mass Strike: the Political Party and the Trade Unions, and the Junius pamphlet (tr. 1971)
  • 'Kwestia narodowosciowa i autonomia', 1908 (in Przeglad Socjaldemokrtczny 6) - in The National Question: Selected Writings (ed. H.B. Davis, 1976)
  • 'Women's suffrage and class struggle', 1912 (in Selected Political Writings, 1971)
  • Die Akkumulation des Kapitals. Ein Beitrag zur ökonomischen Erklärung des Imperialismus, 1913 - The Accumulation of Capital (trans. Agnes Schwarzschild, 1951, reprinted 1971) / The Accumulation of Capital--an Anti-Critique (translated by Rudolf Wichmann, 1972)
  • 'Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie', 1916 (as Junius) - The Junius Pamphlet (tr. by Dave Hollis)
  • Spartakusbriefe, 1916
  • 'Was will der Spartakusbund?', 1918 (in Die rote Fahne 29)
  • Briefe aus dem Gefängnis, 1919
  • Die Akkumulation des Kapitals, oder, Was die Epigonen aus der Marxschen Theorie gemacht haben: eine Antikritik, 1921
  • Zur russischen Revolution, 1922 - The Russian Revolution (tr. 1944)
  • Einführung in die National ekonomie, 1925 - What Is Economics? (tr. T. Edwards, 1954, reprinted 1968)
  • Letters to Karl and Luise Kautsky from 1896 to 1918, 1925 (ed.  Luise Kautsky and tr.  Louis P. Lochner)
  • Letters from Prison, 1946 (translated by Eden and Cedar Paul)
  • Briefe an Freunde, 1950
  • Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften, 1951
  • Ich war, ich bin, ich werde sein!, 1958
  • Das Menschliche entscheidet, 1958
  • Collected Economic Papers, 1960
  • The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, 1961 (ed. D.B. Wolfe)
  • Politische Schriften I-III, 1966
  • Schriften zur Theorie der Spontaneität, 1970
  • Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, 1970 (ed. Mary-Alice Waters)
  • Internationalismus und Klassenkampf, 1971
  • Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, 1971 (ed.  Dick Howard)
  • Selected Political Writings, 1972 (ed.  Robert Looker)
  • Imperialism and the Accumulation of Capital, 1972 (with N. Bukharin)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1-5, 1970-75
  • Vive la lutte!, 1975
  • The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, 1978 (ed.  S.E. Bonner)
  • Comrade and Lover: Rosa Luxemburgs Letters to Leo Jogiches, 1979 (edited and translated by Elzbieta Ettinger)
  • Gesammelte Briefe, 1-6, 1980-93
  • Herzlichst Ihre Rosa: Ausgewahlte Briefe, 1989 (eds. George Adler and Annelies Laschitza) - The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (edited by Annelies Laschitza, George Adler and Peter Hudis, translated by George Shriver, 2011)
  • The Letters of Rosa Luxermburg, 1993 (ed. Stephen Eric Bronner)
  • Rosa Luxemburg: Reflections and Writings, 1999 (edited by Paul Le Blanc)
  • The Essential Rosa Luxemburg: Reform or Revolution & The Mass Strike, 2008 (edited by Helen Scott)
  • Socialism or Barbarism?: The Selected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, 2010 (eds. Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott)
  • The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, 2011 (eds. Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annalies Laschitza)

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