Rosa Luxemburg’s search for answers to life’s meaning blended the personal with the political. Her death bought an end to her own personal tragedies and triumphs. Yet her ideas and struggles continue to resonate on the 150th anniversary of her birth this March.

Confronting tragedy

Coming from a somewhat privileged background, Luxemburg felt it was a tragedy that some people were illiterate. It closed them off from the wondrousness that she herself discovered between the covers of her books. She pushed hard against this, and as a child sought to teach one of her family’s servants how to read. It was an impulse throughout her life—a voracious desire to help open worlds and share knowledge with all people, especially those for whom such wondrousness had traditionally been closed off.

Suffering was not confined to others. Luxemburg’s early childhood experience included a hip ailment, which kept her in bed for a year and affected her for the rest of her life. As a child, she would have been most keenly aware of this, but she would soon discover other “tragedies”— difficulties brought on simply by the person that she was. She was a woman in a world that, even more than today, oppressed and denigrated women. She was Polish, and in her time the Poles were an oppressed nationality, particularly by Russians and Germans. And she was a Jew, in a world where antisemitism was stronger and more restrictive than is the case today.

Also, increasingly, Luxemburg became aware of the oppression of downtrodden and despised majorities by powerful and privileged minorities, which stunted and destroyed the lives of millions of people. She identified this in the form of class society and also in the form of colonialism and imperialism. Luxemburg felt keenly various forms of human cruelty and destructiveness, against other people and against animals and the planet as a whole. She believed such tragedies could and should be prevented—she hated them.  She brought to the struggle a vibrant personality, penetrating insight, biting humor—all that she was.

Marxism, politics and mass action

In her passionate quest to understand the world and change it for the better, Luxemburg was drawn to the orientation and ideas of Karl Marx.  The following became essential to her own outlook.

1) A philosophy or way of understanding reality which is dynamic or dialectical, philosophically materialist and humanistic.

2) A theory of history that sees historical development being shaped by economic development. It has a special emphasis on the amazing developments of technology and on the conflict between classes—the wealthy and powerful minorities and the laboring majorities that they squeeze the wealth from.

3) An analysis of our present economic system—capitalism—which sees it as incredibly productive and dynamic but also as incredibly destructive. It results in various problems and crises. And this is largely because it is an economy ruled by a minority motivated by a desire to profit at the expense of others and, if necessary, at the expense of society as a whole.

4) A belief that the working class majority under capitalism can and should develop a political program to defend its interests under capitalism and then replace capitalism with something better. This would involve struggles for reforms—changes for the better within capitalism—and building unions to push for better wages and conditions and a working class political party to help “win the battle of democracy”.

5) A vision of a revolutionary socialist alternative to capitalism that could be won through the struggles of the workers and the oppressed. It was a vision of economic democracy in which the wealth created by the majority would be used for the benefit of all.

Luxemburg was part of a global socialist working class movement. She was born in Poland, but while she was alive, Poland didn’t exist as a separate country. A piece of it was part of the Russian Empire, and another piece of it belonged to Germany. While belonging to a small Polish socialist group, she decided to move to Berlin and join the massive German socialist movement. It included sizeable unions, organisations of women and young people, reform campaigns, a range of cultural endeavors, and a very substantial political party. It was able to elect a growing number of representatives to the German parliament, called the Reichstag.

Some influential people in the German socialist movement, such as Eduard Bernstein, began arguing that winning more and more reforms and electing more and more people was all that was needed. This would gradually change capitalism into socialism. And they therefore felt it was most realistic simply to figure out how to win elections and how to maneuver within parliament in order to pile up the reforms they desired. Luxemburg disagreed.

Marx had been in favor of a workers’ party running candidates for parliament—and Luxemburg agreed. But also in agreement with Marx, she believed the following. First, the state or government in a capitalist society would be more or less controlled by the capitalists. Second, the winning of reforms would require determined mass struggles of workers and oppressed people outside of parliament, putting pressure on capitalist employers and the government. Third, the problems and destructive dynamics of capitalism were so deep that they could not simply be reformed out of existence. And fourth, eventually the capitalists would use their considerable wealth and power to push back, defeat and crush—by any means necessary—the working class majority replacing capitalism with socialism.

This meant a revolution to overthrow capitalism would be necessary, as Luxemburg argued in the anti-reformist polemic Reform or Revolution. In later years, she extended her understanding, and ours, by tracing capitalism’s expansively voracious, violent, inhuman dynamics in her analysis of imperialism, The Accumulation of Capital.

Drawn into eastern Europe’s revolutionary whirlwind of 1905, Luxemburg experienced mass upsurges, strikes, uprisings. These were popular explosions generated by oppressive conditions and by masses of people feeling, “I’m not going to take it anymore,” and, “We’re all in this together,” and, “In unity there is strength!”  The semi-spontaneous mass actions helped working class organisations—trade unions, revolutionary groups, and so on—grow and win partial victories.

This resulted in Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike, the Trade Unions, and the Political Party. She argued that the sort of mass action she saw in 1905 must become essential in the thinking and political strategy of what she called “the socialist vanguard”. Some of her frightened comrades resisted this approach. But many radical-minded working class people and socialist intellectuals thought it made sense, absorbing the ideas she put forward in their own thought and activity.

Luxemburg’s impact

As a brilliant, brave, amazing woman with a very vibrant idealism and deeply humanistic ideas, Luxemburg was an attractive figure for many people dissatisfied with various oppressive aspects of capitalist society. Her politics were especially inspiring for young people, but not just them. She represented a profoundly democratic and humanistic version of socialism. It is more attractive than either a bureaucratic reformism that compromises with the capitalists—and, in the years after her death, the repressive dictatorships that claimed to be “socialist” but were actually controlled by new ruling elites.

Many of the economic, social, and political realities that she analysed and struggled with are similar to things that people face today. So many find her ideas and example helpful in efforts to understand the world, and in struggles to change it.

Those who wanted to preserve the existing social, economic, and political system hated her, made fun of her, and attacked her as “bloody Rosa”. Some people in her own socialist movement strongly disagreed with her, considering her unrealistic and even dangerous. Others learned from her, were inspired by her, and in some cases loved her. She was a leading representative of the revolutionary wing of the socialist movement.

When the First World War came, she opposed it as an unjustified imperialist war. At the time many, even many workers and socialists, passively accepted it or enthusiastically supported it in the name of “patriotism”. She spent several difficult years in prison for refusing to go along with this. By the time this horrific war was over, many people concluded that Luxemburg had been right.

Even before the war’s end, worker and peasant upsurges in Russia during 1917 overturned first the monarchy and then a pro-capitalist Provisional Government. These were reacting against the war’s devastation—and against the accumulation of oppression and injustice from Tsars, aristocrats and capitalists. The upsurges culminated in power coming into the hands of democratic councils known as soviets, led by the Bolshevik party headed by Vladimir Lenin, which launched the early Communist movement.  Luxemburg liked Lenin, agreed with him about many things, but also had sharp disagreements even while embracing the 1917 revolution. She warned against compromises—particularly in regard to democratic rights—that Lenin and his comrades were making in the revolution’s struggle to survive.

Convinced the solution could only come through Russia being joined by revolution spreading to more economically-developed lands, she intensified her efforts to rally German workers to socialist revolution.  In the turmoil sweeping Germany in 1919, she was killed by right wing forces shortly after helping to found the German Communist Party. When she was murdered, for many she became a heroic martyr—but others spit on the memory of “bloody Rosa”.​

Tragedies and triumphs

Luxemburg overcame many difficulties to accomplish amazing things. She became an influential political figure when women didn’t even have the right to vote and a force in a socialist movement that was dominated by men. She was a brilliant writer and political analyst, influential economist, important social thinker whose works are read—often avidly—even today a century after her death. Some of the struggles she helped strengthen resulted in important gains for millions of people.

Luxemburg had wonderful and beautiful friendships. She loved and was able to immerse herself in literature, creative activity, culture. She knew how to have fun and was animated by an awe, a sense of wonder, about the natural world and life in general. She lived life fully, bravely, and her life was full of positive meaning – which is something which she was fortunate enough to be keenly aware of. She very much made a difference in more than one way.

The world and life are full of suffering, and suffering was part of Luxemburg’s life and consciousness as well. Some she loved left her, in one way or another, in some cases through death. At certain moments, cruelty and violence created a vast whirlpool all around her—and she did not have the power to stop it. The movement to which she dedicated herself failed to bring about the socialism which she had struggled for over most of her life. She herself was brutally murdered and thrown into a canal, where over a period of time her body bloated and decomposed.

Luxemburg had argued three years before her death that humanity faced a choice – moving forward to socialism or a downward slide into barbarism. Throughout the 20th century, the socialism she believed in was achieved nowhere, but historical developments did in many ways have the quality of a very terrible barbarism. They included the rise of fascism and Nazism, the Stalinist degradation of Communism, the Great Depression, a Second World War more horrific than the first, and an extended Cold War with many grotesque features on both sides. And that’s not to mention a threat of nuclear annihilation.

Our own very glitzy consumer capitalism, with many technological wonders, is accompanied by growing cultural and environmental pollution, multiple inequalities and punctuated by terror and violence and plague. They have brought us something very different from the future that Luxemburg fought for.  It remains to be seen, in the 21st century, if the tragedy will be deepened and finalised—or if there will be triumphs in line with her spirit.