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Women on the Left: Rosa Luxemburg

Categories: Features

As part of the 'Women on the Left' series, Kezia Kinder looks at the life of Rosa Luxemburg.

One of the most prominent female figures of modern history, Rosa Luxemburg was at the forefront of the revolutionary movements in both Germany and Russia during the early twentieth century. Luxemburg both participated in, and lead workers’ movements, at a time when women were afforded very few rights, with men traditionally playing a leading role and women confined to the margins. Born in 1871 to peasant parents in rural Poland, she achieved far more than could ever have been expected of a woman of her social standing at the time.

At the age of just 16 years, Luxemburg joined the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland (then known as Proletariat), which at that point organised in small, clandestine groups following the execution of four leaders not long before Luxemburg was recruited. Far ahead of any revolutionary party of Russia in terms of organization, Luxemburg became known as theoretical leader of the party by her late teens, remaining so until her death in 1919. In 1889 in Luxemburg, facing arrest, she was forced to flee to Switzerland. There she immersed herself in education and further political activity, studying natural sciences, Mathematics and Economics at Zurich University, whilst playing an active role in the workers movements in Zurich.

Representing the party at the Congress of the Socialist International in 1893, she criticised the nationalistic traditions upheld by many of the older members, standing in defence of internationalism instead, and courting much controversy in the process. She stood by her belief in the international labour movement, leading her to move to Germany several years later, where much of the activity surrounding the movement was taking place, joining the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) upon her arrival. During this period she started writing for a number of socialist publications, while addressing mass meetings and rallies when the need arose. She wrote a number of influential pieces, the underlying narrative focussing on the dangers of reformism – an increasing trend in Germany during this time – while stressing the need for revolution through participatory grassroots activity.

The 1905 Russian Revolution

Luxemburg criticised the ‘stagist’ position held at the time by the majority of both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, which saw the limit of the 1905 revolution in the establishment of bourgeois democracy. Arguing for the necessity of working class leadership over the revolutionary process, Luxemburg emphasised the role of the mass strike in uniting economic and political struggles, while recognising the organic relationship between spontaneity and organisation in the workers’ movement. Long after the 1905 revolution was suppressed, the ideas Luxemburg developed in conversation with the process continued to inform her theory and activity.

Not content to simply write about the revolution, Luxemburg smuggled herself into Russian-occupied Poland as soon as she could. Though the height of the revolutionary movement had by this time passed, and workers’ papers were now prohibited, Luxemburg continued to ensure the distribution of her party’s paper, for which she was imprisoned not long after her arrival in Poland. She was released and expelled from the country after four months in prison, returning to Germany. Now absolutely sure of the importance of mass strikes in the process of revolution, she made a speech to this effect, and was promptly arrested and imprisoned for two months, charged with “inciting violence”. In 1913 Luxemburg wrote ‘The Accumulation of Capital,’ an original and imaginative contribution to the Marxist critique of political economy. It focused specifically on the expansion of capitalist production and its relation to the imperial misadventure of capitalist states, arguing that the management of the internal contradictions of the capitalist system required the persistent exploitation of the resources of societies remaining ‘outside’ the capitalist world.

Split with the Social Democratic Party of Germany and opposition to World War One

By 1910, tensions within the SPD came to a climax, and the party split into three, with Luxemburg seen as the main inspiration for the revolutionary wing, which opposed the increasingly imperialist nature of the reformists, and the parliamentary tendencies of the party’s centre. Her opposition to the First World War led to Luxemburg’s arrest again in February 1914, this time for “inciting soldiers to mutiny” following a speech she made calling for conscientious objections, arguing that “if they expect us to murder our French or other foreign brothers, then let us tell them, ‘No, under no circumstances’.” Luxemburg remained fiercely opposed to the war even after almost the whole of the SPD had stood to defend it – forming the Spartacus League in 1914 along with Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin. Despite being in prison for much of the next four years, Luxemburg continued to support the principles of the Spartacus League, writing and organising from her cell. She followed the events of the 1917 Russian revolution closely, defending the failed February movement as only the beginning of a struggle that would overthrow capitalist barbarism and the creation of a workers state, and urged the German people to join them.

The German Revolution and her death

Luxemburg was finally released from prison in November 1918 following the first wave of the German revolution. Upon her release she co-founded the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), and established the Red Flag newspaper, which advocated the amnesty of all political prisoners, while reorganising the Spartacus League with Karl Liebknecht. However, as the second wave of violent revolution swept Berlin, right-wing Social Democrats ordered its suppression, and the military took to the streets, murdering thousands of protesting workers. On the 15th of January 1919 Luxemburg died at the hands of the military, alongside the workers whose rights she had defended her entire life. Her last written words, on the eve of her death, reiterated her faith in the revolution of the masses which she believed would lead to a society rooted in social justice, for which she had fought throughout her life:

“The leadership has failed. Even so, the leadership can and must be recreated from the masses and out of the masses. The masses are the decisive element, they are the rock on which the final victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were on the heights; they have developed this ‘defeat’ into one of the historical defeats which are the pride and strength of international socialism. And that is why the future victory will bloom from this ‘defeat’.’ Order reigns in Berlin!’ You stupid henchmen! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will already ‘raise itself with a rattle’ and announce with fanfare, to your terror: I was, I am, I shall be!”

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