Rosa Luxemburg

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Luxemburg was a leading figure in the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party, and she played a key role in the founding of the Polish Social Democratic Party and the German Communist Party. An able, indefatigable journalist and writer, she developed a humanistic version of Marxism that emphasized internationalism, mass participation, a dislike of violence, and opposition to gradual reformism.

Early Life

Born in 1871, Rozalia Luksenburg (her name until 1889) was reared and educated in the Polish city of Warsaw, then a part of the Russian Empire. The youngest child in a secular Jewish family of the lower middle class, her personal experiences with anti-Semitism, including a violent pogrom in 1881, resulted in a strong aversion toward Polish nationalism. She was always an excellent, hardworking student, and in high school she was converted to Marxist socialism, with her academic record indicating “a rebellious attitude.” Because of harassment from the Russian authorities and also because no Polish universities were open to women, she decided in 1889 to emigrate to Switzerland to study at the University of Zurich.

In Zurich, Luxemburg was a brilliant student of law and political science, receiving her doctorate in 1897. Her doctoral thesis, published in book form, was a study of the development of capitalism in Poland, and it emphasized that because of Poland’s dependence on the Russian economy, independence was highly impractical. Zurich was a center for radical refugees from Eastern Europe, and Luxemburg energetically participated in Socialist activities, becoming a friend of Russian Social Democrats such as Georgy Plekhanov. It was also at this time that she began her long intimacy with Leo Jogiches, a young revolutionary from Lithuania.

Luxemburg and Jogiches, employing Jogiches’ considerable inheritance, founded the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (the nucleus of the future Communist Party of Poland), and Luxemburg worked as the chief editor of the group’s newspaper, The Workers’ Cause. At this time, most Polish Socialists were strong nationalists who wanted independence for their country, but Luxemburg and her followers rejected such a goal as contrary to the principles of international solidarity. This persistent distrust of national aspirations would remain one of the major themes of Luxemburg’s thought.

Completely fluent in the use of the German language, after graduation Luxemburg decided to move to Germany. She was having trouble with the Swiss authorities, and the German Social Democratic Party, the largest and most powerful Socialist organization of the world, dominated the Second International. To gain German citizenship, in 1898 she temporarily married Gustav Lübeck, the son of one of her friends, and she then moved to the capital city of Berlin.

Life’s Work

As Luxemburg was establishing herself in Germany, the socialist revisionist, Eduard Bernstein, was publishing a controversial series of articles, later translated into the book Evolutionary Socialism. Bernstein argued that Marx’s idea of a violent upheaval was no longer necessary and that in modern industrial countries workers could improve their conditions through a combination of parliamentary reforms and trade union activities. Luxemberg believed that Bernstein was attacking the “corner-stone of scientific socialism,” which was the inevitable collapse of capitalism. Refuting his thesis in Sozialreform oder Revolution? (1899; Reform or Revolution?, 1937), she argued that, while reforms might be of some help in promoting the struggle, the liberation of the workers could only occur with the radical transformation from capitalism to socialism.

Luxemburg was one of the first to attack revisionism, and she took the position that was then supported by Karl Kautsky and most of the leadership of the Second International. Bernstein was generally looked upon as a heretic within the Socialist movement, although selective aspects of his revisionism continued gradually to gain acceptance. This polemical controversy promoted Luxemburg’s career, and henceforth she was recognized as a leader in the left wing of the movement.

The Russian/Polish Revolution of 1905 was one of the central events in Luxemburg’s life. Like most Marxists, she was surprised by the uprising, since she had expected that a workers’ revolution would first occur in an advanced country such as Germany. Hopeful that this would be the beginning of an international revolution, she rushed to Warsaw, where she energetically took part in the final stages of the event. Taken prisoner and charged with illegal activities, she was able to jump bail and to return to Berlin. This exciting experience, and especially the use of general strikes, helped Luxemburg to formulate her theory of revolutionary mass action, published in Massenstreik: Partei und Gewerkschaften (1906; The Mass Strike: The Political Party and the Trade Unions, 1925). Arguing that a large-scale strike was the most useful tool that the proletariat possessed, she explained that such revolutionary praxis would result from the workers’ realization of their exploitation under capitalism. Such views were contrary to many of the theories of Vladimir Ilich Lenin.

Having emerged as the leader of...

(The entire section is 2223 words.)