Rosa Luxemburg was one of the most important democratic socialist figures in Europe. Alongside Karl Liebknecht, she was a prominent representative of internationalist and antimilitarist positions in Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SDP). She did all that she could to prevent World War I, and was a passionate and persuasive critic who drew her strength for revolutionary action from her criticism of bourgeois-capitalist society. She welcomed the advent of the Russian Revolution, but as a revolutionary democrat, she remained vigilant, and harshly criticised the dictatorial policies of the Bolshevists.
Rosa Luxemburg was born on 5 March, 1871 in the small town of Zamość, in Russian-occupied Poland, as the daughter of a wood merchant. Between 1880 and 1887, she attended grammar school in Warsaw, where she earned excellent grades despite the fact that she was studying in an environment usually reserved for the daughters of Russian state officials. She became fluent in four languages, and developed an early interest in the spoken and written word. It was at this time that she became active in left-wing groups.
She moved to Switzerland where she studied natural sciences and then economics at the University of Zürich. This university was one of very few higher education institutions to provide equal access for women at the time. In 1897, Luxemburg completed her doctoral degree, and was respected as one of the only women to have done so among the sons of landlords, factory owners and civil servants.
In 1898, Luxemburg moved to Germany where a fictitious marriage enabled her to gain German citizenship. From then on, she fought for social democracy in Germany at party and international congresses and through her publications. At the 1900 International Socialist Congress, she laid out the need for international action against imperialism, militarism and colonialism.
In February 1914, Rosa Luxemburg was imprisoned for delivering anti-war speeches. In 1915, and writing under a pseudonym, Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet against the war that became known as the “Junius Pamphlet.” At the end of 1915, she co-founded The International Group, together with Karl Liebknecht and other social democratic opponents of the war. This led to the emergence of the Spartacus League in 1916.
Between July 1916 and November 1918, Rosa Luxemburg was imprisoned in Berlin, Wronki and Wrocław (Wronke and Breslau at the time). In 1917, she wrote articles from prison supporting the Russian February and October Revolutions. Although she welcomed these upheavals, she also warned against the dictatorship of the Bolshevists
Once released from prison on November 9, 1918 she immediately did all she could to support the November Revolution. Together with Karl Liebknecht, Luxemburg published the newspaper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), campaigned for social revolution, and, at the start of 1919, became one of the founding members of the Communist Part of Germany (the KPD).
On 15 January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by officers and soldiers belonging to counter-revolutionary army units in Berlin.
Rosa Luxemburg believed that socialism was not a service that could be rendered to others, nor a gift that could be given by one party to the oppressed and exploited. She stressed that socialist politics and socialism had to emerge out of joint, voluntary, conscious actions undertaken by the underprivileged. In 1904, she maintained that this implied the development of a movement that would be “the first in the history of class societies to be premised in its every aspect and in its whole development on the organisation and independent direct action of the masses.” Furthermore, although professional politicians and parties would constitute part of this movement, she viewed them as merely responsible for organisation and political education
The growing aggression of German militarism at the time as well as the ongoing wars aimed at producing new divisions in the world, and especially World War I, led the question of peace to gain in importance. Rosa Luxemburg viewed a future socialist society as inherently peaceful. A socialist society was a society in which all causes of war and barbarism had been eliminated and, as such, a society that enabled everyone to live peacefully. It was Luxemburg’s deep longing for peace that led her to fervently commit herself to socialism. “The proletarian revolution to its ends needs no terror, it hates and despises the murder of people. It does not need this means of struggle, because it is not fighting people, but institutions, because it does not step into the arena with naïve illusions, whose disappointment it would have to bloodily avenge. It is not a desperate attempt by a minority to model the world after its ideal by force, but the action of the great mass of millions of people.”
Following Marx, she argued that “social restructuring” would mean overthrowing all social relations “in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence.” Social revolution, she pointed out, was to be reached through a constant struggle for hegemony that would result in a lasting change in the relations of power. Her aim was not merely to expropriate the expropriators, but to rebuild the foundations of society so as to ensure that exploitation and oppression were no longer possible. In fact, she rejected all forms of violence against capital owners and instead called for a form of socialism that would be supported by the majority of the underprivileged. In this new society, no one would even view the reintroduction of capitalism as worthy of consideration.
Rosa Luxemburg viewed the struggle for hegemony as an ongoing fight for approval and support through qualified majorities; this, she argued, could overcome capitalism. Accordingly, freedom and democracy were not luxuries that socialist politicians could deny at will; they were necessary aspects of socialism: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.”
Throughout her life, Rosa Luxemburg belonged to minorities that faced discrimination, if not persecution. She was Jewish, and although she had no strong links to religion, she was invariably affected by anti-Semitism.
She was inspired by a determination to live independently; this stood in strong contrast to the narrow ideals of her time. She defended her views with uncompromising conviction and a powerful voice. Her warmth and rousing temperament meant that she could win over anyone, at least if they were prepared to debate with her without preconceived ideas, and it is still impossible to feel indifferent toward her. However, these characteristics also led Rosa Luxemburg to encounter intimidation and hatred from those who envied her.
Luxemburg’s relentless struggle against war and her radical insistence on linking political freedom to social equality are highly relevant today.