“You know, I hope nevertheless to die at my post, in a street-battle or in a hard-labour prison”, wrote Rosa Luxemburg to a comrade in 1917. This was not rhetorical flourish or hyperbole: Luxemburg gave everything she had to the fight for socialism. Including, in the end, her life.
The carnage of World War I was ended by revolution in Germany. It began in November 1918 with a mutiny of sailors in Kiel. The revolt spread like lightning among Germany’s war-weary and increasingly rebellious workers. All over the country, workers’ and soldiers’ councils were elected and held effective power. Within a matter of days, the monarchy collapsed.
In 1915, Rosa Luxemburg wrote The Crisis of Social Democracy while in jail for her anti-war activism. In it, she criticised the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) for betraying working-class internationalism with their support for the First World War. The pamphlet was smuggled out in April that year and published a year later. Distributed illegally under the pseudonym Junius, it’s commonly known as the Junius pamphlet.
From early in her political career, Rosa Luxemburg was concerned with the struggle against imperialism and war. Her analysis and the tactics she advocated weren’t all correct, but she was always on the side of the working class and its independent organisation, and of the oppressed. That was true in her approach to the “national question”, her responses to wars and her theory of imperialism.
“Fighting the System, Rebuilding the Left” was the theme of Socialist Alternative’s 2022 Marxism Festival. The event is usually held in Melbourne, but this year was spread across Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Around 1,000 people attended across the five cities.
The received wisdom of capitalism is that progressive reforms are gradually won as ideas slowly evolve and enlightened leaders gain positions of power. The 1917 Russian Revolution provided an entirely different model of social change—one in which revolutionary workers radically changed the society around them almost overnight through their own collective action.