This month marks the centennial of one of the great revolutionary thinkers and activists of the last century, Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919). Born in Poland but active in the leftwing leadership of both the Polish and the German Social Democratic Parties, she was assassinated in Berlin on January 15, 1919 by proto-fascists. In her last days, she was helping to lead the Spartacist Uprising, an attempt to follow the Russian revolution with a socialist revolution in Germany. Her murder by proto-fascist former military officers — in today’s parlance, “disappeared” by a death squad — robbed the German revolutionary left of its most astute leader, severely weakening the chances that the Russian revolution could spread westward, into the core capitalist lands, and also making it easier, 14 years later, for the Nazis to come to power.
A woman who rose to become one of best-known socialist thinkers and activists of her time, better known than Lenin or Trotsky until after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, her legacy was for many years neglected and it is still rare for her writings to be read in academia.
Luxemburg’s life and work cut across many issues that still motivate us today. Her first widely discussed writing, published in 1898 at the age of 27, offered a withering critique of reformist socialism, which she held could not solve the problems of capitalism. She effectively targeted a leading Marxist theorist, Eduard Bernstein, who had written that the anticapitalist principles of earlier socialism should be de-emphasized in favor of fighting for a series of smaller gains in both parliament and trade union organizing. This article raised Luxemburg to the position of one of a handful of major thinkers in the worldwide socialist movement.
Luxemburg also wrote widely on revolutionary democracy and spontaneous revolutionary creativity from below. Her 1906 pamphlet, “The Mass Strike,” analyzed the essentially spontaneous character of the gigantic strikes that accompanied the Russian revolution of 1905, and it showed that the workers learned and developed in the course of the struggle, not only strategy and tactics, but also revolutionary ideas. In a similar vein, she also wrote a stinging critique of Lenin’s more top-down concept of revolutionary organization, in a famous response to his writings on the vanguard party to lead. Also in this vein, Luxemburg penned an essay offering critical support to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, with her criticism centering mainly on the establishment of a single-party state, something she accurately predicted would undermine the democratic aims of the revolution. Others had also criticized the revolution, but these criticisms came mainly from conservatives, liberals, or moderate socialists, who thought the revolution’s attempt to move in the direction of socialism was either an outrageous attack on the state and property, or that it was premature and therefore misguided.
In 1918, at the time Luxemburg wrote that critique of the 1917 revolution, she was sitting in a German prison for having spoken out against war and militarism. She spent the four years of World War I, which she dubbed an imperialist war, in that same prison. From her prison cell, she also wrote, in 1915, the “Junius Pamphlet,” a hard-hitting book-length critique of war, militarism, and imperialism from a Marxist standpoint. In it, she questioned the dominant narrative, found even among most socialists of the time, to the effect that capitalism was on the whole a progressive system. Instead, she saw World War I, which was to kill 10 million people, as a retrogression to barbarism in the heart of Western capitalist “civilization.”
This was not the first time Luxemburg analyzed war and imperialism. Her 1913 magnum opus, Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to the Explanation of Imperialism, offered the first full-length Marxist critique of imperialism. In this book, she argued that imperialism, including colonial occupation, was crucial to capitalism’s survival, part of an attempt to stave off economic crisis. Moreover, interimperialist rivalry would lead to war. In this work, she also described in moving detail how imperialist forces had massacred, starved, and stolen the land of the peasants of India and Algeria.
Finally, Luxemburg was an early founder of socialist feminism. She wrote a number of articles on working women and on women and revolution, always seeking to tie the women’s struggle to the anticapitalist one. A sensitivity to women’s oppression and resistance can be found throughout her writings, however, whether in her emphasis on the leading role of women workers in the Russian mass strikes of 1905, or in her discussion of the fate of enslaved women in her essay on slavery in the Greco-Roman world.