Rosa Luxemburg Essay - Critical Essays

Rozalia Luksenburg

Luxemburg, Rosa


Rosa Luxemburg 1871-1919

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Junius) Polish-born German political activist and journalist.

Luxemburg was a leader of the socialist movement in Europe in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In her writings she articulated political viewpoints based on the economic theories central to social thought. Her best known work, Die Akkumulation des Kapitals, oder Was die Epigonen aus der Marxschen Theorie gemacht haben: Eine Antikritik (The Accumulation of Capital), while often questioned for the soundness of its reasoning on economic issues, is nonetheless applauded for confronting such subjects as ethnicity, the expansion of capitalist nations into underdeveloped countries, and the effects of military spending.

Biographical Information

Luxemburg was born into an affluent and well-educated family in Zamosc, Poland, then a part of Russia. She attended secondary school in Warsaw and distinguished herself in her academic studies. She also began to develop a reputation as an independently minded young woman who questioned authority and involved herself in political causes of the day. When she was nineteen Luxemburg left Poland and settled in Switzerland in order to avoid being arrested for her part in anti-czarist activities. At the University of Zurüch she earned two doctoral degrees, one in law and the other in philosophy. Her dissertation on the economic history of Poland was published and became a valuable resource for scholars in modern Europe studies. An important element of this work focused on what Luxemburg viewed as the economic threat faced by Poland if it attempted to sever all economic ties with Russia in the name of political self-determination. In 1898 Luxemburg moved to Germany, where she became active in the German Communist party and apprenticed to Karl Kautsky, the founder and editor of the socialist newspaper Neue Zeit. Luxemburg wrote a series of newspaper articles and pamphlets and taught economics at a school operated under the authority of the German Communist party. Her writings, often published anonymously or pseudonymously, resulted in both communication and ideological conflict with leading figures in the international communist movement, including Leon Trotsky and V. I. Lenin. Specifically, Luxemburg differed with Lenin in her advocacy of socialism as a political ideal that superseded the integrity and autonomy of individual nations.

On the eve of World War I, Luxemburg and several others organized a communist faction called the Spartacans. The group opposed the war because they perceived it as an attempt on the part of capitalist governments to distract the proletariat from the burdens of capitalism. The Spartacans also condemned parliamentary activities on the part of socialists, as opposed to more radical means of reform, as a surrender to the status quo. Luxemburg was jailed after a failed coup attempt against the German government, although it had been staged by others against her wishes. During this time she wrote her Junius pamphlet, in which she warned that Lenin's nascent Soviet government could easily become dictatorial. In 1919 Luxemburg was assassinated by Prussian soldiers during a period of martial law imposed to suppress rioting by German workers, who had been inspired to violence by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

Major Works

Luxemburg's major work, The Accumulation of Capital, developed out of her lectures as a teacher of political economy and economic history. Central to the thesis of this work was a concern with political imperialism, which Luxemburg viewed as having its source in Western industrialism and capitalist economics. Luxemburg argued that it was the nature of capitalist societies to expand their enterprises into less developed areas of the world and that the survival of capitalism depended upon this expansion. While the ideas advanced in The Accumulation of Capital were for the most part rejected or ignored by many of the leading figures of the European socialist movement, and continue to be criticized as ill-founded or poorly conceived, Luxemburg remains one of the consummate examples of a brilliant polemicist and political activist whose life was the foremost expression of her convictions.

Principal Works

Die industrielle Entwicklung Polens [The Industrial Development of Poland] (dissertation) 1898

Sozialreform oder Revolution; Mit einem Anhang: Miliz und Militarismus [Reform or Revolution] (pamphlet) 1899

"Organisationsfragen der russischen Sozialdemokraten"

["Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy"] (essay) 1904

Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften [The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions] (essay) 1906

Die Akkumulation des Kapitals: Ein Beitrag zur ökonomischen Erkldrung des Imperialismus (nonfiction) 1913

Juniusbroschure [The Junius Pamphlet] (pamphlet) 1916

Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie [The Crisis in the German Social Democracy] (pamphlet) 1918

Die Akkumulation des Kapitals, oder Was die Epigonen aus der Marxschen Theorie gemacht haben: Eine Antikritik [The Accumulation of Capital] (nonfiction) 1921

Die russische Revolution: Eine kritische Wiirdigung [The Russian Revolution] (pamphlet) 1922

Gesammelte Werke. 3 vols. [Collected Works of Rosa Luxemburg] (nonfiction) 1923-1928

Einfuhrung in die Nationalokonomie (lectures) 1925

Rosa Luxemburg (speeches) 1928

Leninism or Marxism? The Russian Revolution (essays) 1961

Politische Schriften (nonfiction) 1966-68

Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (speeches) 1970

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (letters) 1978


Paul Frolich (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: A preface to Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work, translated by Johanna Hoornweg, Monthly Review Press, 1972, pp. xiii-xx.

[In the following essay, Frolich explains how and why he collected material for his survey of Luxemburg's life and work.]

The first edition of [Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work] was published in Paris at the end of August 1939, a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War. The book is a child of the German Emigration and bears the marks of its origins. The author left Germany at the beginning of 1934 after his release from a concentration camp. At the time he thought that the material which he had been gathering for many years to prepare for the Collected Works (Gesammelte Werke) of Ross Luxemburg was in safe hands. Somehow, however, it got lost or fell into hands which would not let go of it. Among these papers were manuscripts and letters of Rosa Luxemburg; almost all of her works published in German, Polish and French; Volume v of the Gesammelte Werke, already typeset and ready to be printed, which contained her writings on imperialist politics; political and private letters to Rosa; a number of notes and many other items. Outside Germany only a part of the losses could be made good, and it became necessary to do without many papers which would have been useful in describing background details and personalities.

Despite these unfavourable circumstances, however, the book had to be written. Rosa Luxemburg's name has become a symbol in the international working-class movement. Yet little is known of her work today, and even those who are generally well-versed in socialist literature are acquainted with mere fragments of her writings. The publishing of her literary remains ran into frequent obstacles and—because of the factional fighting within the Communist International—into determined (even if never openly admitted) opposition. It could therefore not be completed. Thus whole areas of her work, a knowledge of which would have been of great significance in assessing her views, were forgotten. In the disputes of the various parties and tendencies in the working-class movement many teachings of the master were misconstrued, and many maliciously distorted. It seemed that if any socialist literature could be salvaged and brought out of hiding in a post-Nazi period, it would prove to be only rubble. There was a danger that only a faded memory or a deceptive legend of Rosa Luxemburg's historical achievements would be left.

The biographical works published about her either served a limited purpose, such as the one by Luise Kautsky, or they disregarded essential sectors of Rosa's life-work, such as the one by Henriette Roland-Holst. Both authors were very close to Rosa, and depicted her personality with much warmth and understanding. However, because both of them after all advocated views decidedly different from Rosa's, they could not succeed in presenting her ideas correctly and in doing justice to her political work.

One person would have been eminently qualified to revive Rosa Luxemburg's life and work: Clara Zetkin. The two of them had worked together for decades. Each was a strong person in the light of her own development and worth. They came from different backgrounds and each was influenced by other experiences. Nevertheless, in the intellectual disputes and political battles they had arrived at the same views and decisions. Of the leading socialists who survived Rosa, no one knew Luxemburg, the person and the fighter, better than Clara Zetkin; no one was more familiar with the battlefield, the historical circumstances, and with the identity of friend and foe in the skirmishes. Moreover, she knew the specific motives behind many of the decisions, motives which would have remained hidden to a researcher forced to make a judgment based on documents alone. What a biography of Rosa by Clara Zetkin would have provided can be surmised from the essays and pamphlets she wrote to commemorate her friend. Until her death on 20 June 1933, however, Clara Zetkin devoted herself completely to the tasks of the daily struggle, and declared again and again that she was thereby fulfilling the obligation she felt for her fallen comrade-in-arms.

The victory of fascism in Germany and the resulting effort to analyse the causes of the severe defeat of the proletariat led not only German socialists to make a more thorough study of the teachings of Rosa Luxemburg. Indeed, one could speak of a Luxemburg-Renaissance in the international working-class movement. The more the interest in her work grew, the deeper the gaps in the available material were felt to be. However, it was evident that it would not suffice merely to republish the lost writings insofar as they were at all accessible. The attempt now had to be made to provide an overall presentation of her ideas and actions using her own views as a starting-point. To define and work out as clearly as possible the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg was the chief task which the author set for himself. He therefore had carefully to consider his presentation and to let Rosa herself speak whenever the opportunity arose, even if the narrative flow might suffer from the break. He was thereby hoping to serve those readers whom he kept constantly in mind while working on the book—active socialists interested in theoretical and tactical problems.

That the book could be written at all was due above all to the efforts of the distinguished publisher and tireless defender of the deprived and the downtrodden, Victor Gollancz. It was his publishing company which, in the spring of 1940, brought out the English edition of the book in Edward Fitzgerald's excellent translation. It had an astonishing success in wartime England.

The book puts the reader back into a time that is past. In the three decades since Rosa Luxemburg's death the world has undergone cruel changes. Those January days of 1919 when the German Revolution was dealt a decisive blow marked, in fact, the end of an epoch of the working-class movement, a period which had begun with the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Laws and had been characterised by an almost uninterrupted socialist advance. Even in times of serious internal upheaval, such as the years of the First World War, this advance had continued, for, as the new experiences and problems were worked out intellectually, new heights of knowledge and insight were reached, and new moral strengths acquired in the more bitter struggles. Since then the conditions under which socialists have had to work have become increasingly more complicated and more difficult. It is true that working-class organisations everywhere grew impressively in size and that significant successes were obtained in individual struggles. However, the working-class movement remained divided by a deep rift; it became crippled by violent internal struggles, and its fighting morale weakened. The general development went from failure to defeat, finally ending in the terrible catastrophe for the whole proletariat brought on by German fascism. In this period of decline the old comrades-in-arms of Rosa Luxemburg felt more and more keenly how sorely the movement lacked her advice, her leadership, and her example. Today anyone trying to assess the difficulties facing the working class in all countries and particularly in Germany, and to grasp the dangers currently confronting all of mankind, becomes aware of the need of our times for a person with Rosa Luxemburg's clarity and boldness.

An attempt should be made to investigate how, under the cataclysmically changed conditions of today, Rosa Luxemburg's ideas, and particularly her tactical teachings, might be used in a fruitful way. However, this is not possible in a preface, even in bare outline form. The first prerequisite for such an undertaking would be a thorough analysis of all the characteristic social and political phenomena of our times. But it should be emphasised that Rosa Luxemburg never looked upon the results of her theoretical work as ultimate truths or as tactical models to be pressed to fit changed conditions. In a speech delivered to trade-union members in Hagen (October 1910) she herself said:

The modem proletarian class does not conduct its struggle according to a schema laid down in a book or in a theory. The modem workers' struggle is a fragment of history, a fragment of social development. And it is in the midst of history, in the midst of struggle, that we learn how we must fight … The first commandment of a political fighter is to go with the development of the times and to account always for any changes in the world as well as for any changes in our fighting strategy.

For her there was no dogma or authority which commanded blind obedience. Even the mere thought that her own ideas should not be subject to...

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F. L. Carsten (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Freedom and Revolution: Rosa Luxemburg," in Revisionism: Essays on the History of Marxist Ideas, edited by Leopold Labedz, Frederick A. Praeger, 1962, pp. 55-66.

[Carsten is a German-born historian. In the following essay, he discusses Luxemburg's pamphlets in relation to the ideals of the German Social-Democratic party.]

Among the rather unimaginative and pedestrian leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party of the early twentieth century—who were occupied with the task of achieving better living conditions for the workers and passing high-sounding resolutions against the evils of bourgeois society (which did not oblige anybody to take any action)—one...

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Hannah Arendt (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Rosa Luxemburg: 1871-1919," in Men In Dark Times, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1968, pp. 33-56.

[A German-born American political philosopher and literary essayist, Arendt was one of the most important political thinkers of the twentieth century. Perceiving the political thinker as a "truth-teller" who counters the lies of politicians, Arendt sought through her writings to expand the realm of human freedom and resist tyranny. In the following essay, which originally appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1966, she discusses the value of J. P. Nettl's biography of Luxemburg and the reception of her writings before and after her death.]


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J. P. Nettl (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Appendix I: Rosa Luxemburg as an Economist," in Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. I, Oxford University Press, London, 1966, pp. 828-41.

[Nettl was a German-born English political scientist and novelist. In the following essay, he surveys the main ideas of Luxemburg's The Accumulation of Capital.]

Rosa Luxemburg always said that, in so far as her talent lay in the field of the social sciences, it was in economics—and in mathematical economics at that. Mathematics may have been her violon d'Ingres—the thing at which she would rather have excelled than those in which she was in fact outstanding. It is quite a common nostalgia. The only evidence for her mathematical...

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Rudolf Schlesinger (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Marxism Without An Organizing Party: Personal Observations on Rosa Luxemburg's Life," in Soviet Studies, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, October, 1966, pp. 225-51.

[In the following essay, Schlesinger considers the aspects of Luxemburg's writings and activism that pertained to the issue of the military industrial complex.]

My lack of knowledge of the Polish language and of the source material available in it exclude any claim for this article to be accepted as a comprehensive review of Mr. Nettl's recent biography of Rosa Luxemburg. A picture based primarily upon German and Russian experiences, which is the natural one for me and my contemporaries, is necessarily...

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George Lichtheim (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Rosa Luxemburg," in The Concept of Ideology and Other Essays, Random House, 1967, pp. 193-203.

[Lichtheim was a German-born social historian and authority on Karl Marx. In the following essay, which was originally published in Encounter in 1966, he considers Nettl's portrait of Luxemburg and her contemporaries, and applauds the moral rigor of Luxemburg's work despite its technical flaws.]

In the mythology of revolutionary socialism, east and west of the great divide, the name of Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) is indissolubly linked with that of Karl Liebknecht: victims of the Spartacist rising in January 1919 whose brutal suppression by soldiers nominally...

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Paul M. Sweezy (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Rosa Luxemburg's The Accumulation of Capital, "in Science and Society, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Fall, 1967, pp. 474-85.

[Sweezy is an American Marxist economist. In the following essay, he describes how Luxemburg's idea of the accumulation of capital grew from her study of Karl Marx's theories.]

[The Accumulation of Capital] was an outgrowth of Rosa Luxemburg's teaching activity at the school of the German Social Democratic Party in the years after 1906. Her main course was a broad survey of political economy, and in connection with it she undertook to write an Introduction to Political Economy. The work proceeded slowly, owing to the...

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Mary-Alice Waters (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: An introduction to Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, edited by Mary-Alice Waters, Pathfinder Press, Inc., 1970, pp. 1-32.

[Waters is a Philippine-born American author and editor who specializes in feminist-socialist issues. In the following essay, she argues that Luxemburg's criticism of more famous Marxists does not make her anti-communist, as some of her detractors believe.]


Rosa Luxemburg was destined to be one of the most controversial figures in the history of the international socialist movement, and her rightful place of honor among the great revolutionary Marxists has often been denied her. Her detractors...

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Ernst Vollrath (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Rosa Luxemburg's Theory of Revolution," translated by E. B. Ashton, in Social Research, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 83-109.

[In the following essay, Vollrath compares Luxemburg's theory of political action to ideas of Cicero, Robespierre and the American Federalists, as well as her Marxist contemporaries and successors.]


Every political theory contains a theory on the nature of action, whether specifically weighed or tacitly assumed, stated in so many words or lodged in the categorial apparatus. The problem to which every theory of action seeks to give a direct or indirect answer is the problem of the start and of...

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Sheila Delany (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Red Rosa: Bread and Roses," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 373-86.

[Delany is an American-born Canadian author and educator. In the following essay, she comments on the revival of interest in Luxemburg's ideas and explores what made Luxemburg such a compelling and disturbing figure.]

Now Red Rosa is also gone,
Where she lies is quite unknown.
Because she told the poor the truth,
The rich have hunted her down.
Bertolt Brecht, "Grabschrift 1919."

A woman, a Jew and a Pole—it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. Rosa...

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Horace B. Davis (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: An introduction to The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Horace B. Davis, Monthly Review Press, 1976, pp. 9-45.

[Davis is an American author and professor of economics. In the following essay, he discusses how Luxemburg and Lenin differed on the issue of what qualified as nationalism, and how Luxemburg contrasted individual self-determination for the working-class with ethnic group identity.]

It is perhaps little known that despite Lenin's attacks on her, the philosophical position so ably expounded by Rosa Luxemburg in her articles of 1908-1909 was never refuted; that it was, on the contrary, adopted by a substantial section of...

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Further Reading


Cliff, Tony. Rosa Luxemburg. London: Socialist Review Publishing Co. Ltd., 1959, 96 p.

Cliff provides a biographical sketch, an overview of Luxemburg's teachings, and an essay on her place in history.

Dombrowski, Eric. "Rosa Luxemburg." In German Leaders of Yesterday and Today, pp. 271-76. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1920.

Dombrowski eulogizes Luxemburg.

Ettinger, Elzbieta. Rosa Luxemburg: A Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986, 286 p.

The biographer draws from multilingual source material housed in Poland, Switzerland, Sweden, and other countries.


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