After Rosa Luxemburg’s death, her friend and comrade Clara Zetkin described her as “the sharp sword, the living flame of the revolution”. Luxemburg was one of the greatest leaders of the world revolutionary socialist movement. She did battle with the giants of anti-revolutionary “reformist” socialism, and she was ultimately murdered by them.
In 1988, German writer Walter Jens wrote, “[T]he humanity of our society will not least be measured by how dearly we will hold Rosa Luxemburg’s heritage”. Her heritage must be held dear, but it must also be appraised honestly. Her wit must not be dulled, and her ideas must not be obscured. She was not a pacifist, but an anti-imperialist; not a believer in capitalist democracy, but a revolutionary.
Luxemburg was born into a generation of Polish Jews who were creating a new leftist intellectual culture after decades of being persecuted by Polish and Russian rule. When she finished school, she joined the workers’ movement in Poland and then in Germany. She soon became a Marxist, and was well known for her intellectual dynamism
The Marxist movement in Germany was vibrant and had mass appeal. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) had a million members, encompassing blue collar workers as well as intelligentsia. It organised workers into trade unions, cultural societies and reading circles. It permeated all aspects of their lives, and its parliamentary representation was growing.
When she arrived in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg immediately threw herself into a controversy emerging in the SPD. In 1899, SPD intellectual Eduard Bernstein attempted to revise the revolutionary nature of Marxism. He scrapped Marx’s prognosis that capitalism would continue to come into crises that would plunge workers and capitalists into chaos, creating revolutionary situations. Instead, writes historian Carl Schorske: “Where Marx saw growing anarchy, Bernstein saw growing order ... In this conceptual framework, revolution was unnecessary”.
Luxemburg emerged as one of the most prominent polemicists against Bernstein, ripping his ideas to shreds. Schorske explains that “she combined one of the most penetrating analytical minds of her age with an imaginative warmth which make her writings unique among Marxist literature”.
It’s a common refrain today to hear that gradually reforming the system is a more pleasant path to socialism. Reformists argue that they are for the same end goal, just a more respectable way to get there.
Luxemburg refuted this. She argued that reformism, the project of altering society through parliamentary reforms, is a counterposed project to revolutionary socialism. She wrote:
“People who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society ... Our program becomes not the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism.”
Luxemburg argued that revolutionaries must fight for reforms, but they must do so in a revolutionary way. Through collective action, the working class can begin to gain the self-confidence and unity required eventually to win a revolution. The most important aspect of the struggle for reforms is the impact it has on the working class’s ability to fight, and she argued that this should shape the approach of revolutionaries to daily struggles. They should push for the masses to take a leading role, to experiment with strategy and tactics, to use their own power and ingenuity rather than relying on those of their trade union officials or parliamentarians.
In response to Bernstein’s assertions that capitalism had become stable, Luxemburg insisted that crisis was built into capitalism – and that this would force the question of revolution.
Only 15 years later, the First World War broke out. It quickly revealed the real differences between revolutionaries and reformists.
Reformists across the world helped their ruling classes to round up young working men, put uniforms on them and send them to be slaughtered. The reformist leaders of the SPD in parliament voted in favour of the war effort. They called on workers to cease fighting for better working conditions and instead to take up arms for the German ruling class. Anti-war SPD newspapers were shut down and leftist members of the SPD were imprisoned or conscripted.
Revolutionaries across the world opposed the war and fought against it bitterly, urging international solidarity of the working class against all of the warmongering governments and capitalists. Rosa Luxemburg joined the ranks of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky in leading the struggle against war.
The Zimmerwald Manifesto of 1915 proclaimed: “Proletarians! Since the outbreak of the war, you have placed your energy, your courage, your endurance at the service of the ruling classes. Now you must stand up for your own cause, for the sacred aims of Socialism, for the emancipation of the oppressed nations as well as of the enslaved classes, by means of the irreconcilable proletarian class struggle.”
The reformists’ world view was premised on socialists wielding power by integrating themselves into the capitalist state. In a crisis, they had to defend that state.
The revolutionaries, on the other hand, premised their world view on the international solidarity of the working class against the capitalist class. For revolution to be possible, workers must see their own rulers, and not other workers, as the enemy. Opposition to imperialism is woven into the fabric of revolutionary politics.
The war put extreme pressure on the working class internationally. Millions faced the prospect of murder at the fronts, and millions more had their working conditions attacked at home to aid the war effort.
In country after country, workers and soldiers began to resist the war by leading mass revolts. In Russia and Germany, workers led general strikes, shutting down factories, railways and ports. Soldiers mutinied and joined the strikers.
These movements grew into revolutions. They thrust leaders forward from the ranks of the revolutionary movement. Lenin was one of these leaders in Russia. In Germany, Luxemburg become one of the recognised leaders in a mass movement establishing revolutionary workers’ councils across Germany. In many places, these institutions began to take power over what was manufactured and distributed, the hours and working conditions of workers, the social life of cities and towns. The councils decreed pay increases of up to 80 percent, imposed the eight-hour working day and took control of military newspapers to use them for anti-war propaganda.
Alongside her comrade and friend Karl Liebknecht, Luxemburg split from Social Democracy and established the Communist Party of Germany. Like Russia’s Bolshevik party, it was to be a tool for the working class, to organise the revolution and combat all those attempting to crush it. Later she described its purpose: “If the cause of the Revolution is to advance, if the victory of the proletariat, of socialism, is to be anything but a dream, the revolutionary workers must set up leading organisations able to guide and to utilise the combative energy of the masses”.
The revolutionary movement of that time was full of debates, but Luxemburg was in full agreement with the Bolsheviks on the need for a revolutionary party. It is clear from her critique of the Russian Bolsheviks, written from prison in 1918, that she sought to build a party that, like theirs, could lead an insurrection. “Everything that a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness, and consistency in a historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky, and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which the Social Democracy of the West lacked were represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.”
The German revolution had many enemies. The capitalists and their army initially seemed weak in the face of the workers, who had both the power and the will to take over and reorganise society.
The reformist “socialists” were more difficult to overcome. They placed themselves at the head of the movement, using it to install themselves as a new government. They fought bitterly to wind up all of the revolutionary-democratic institutions that the workers had created, taking over the workers’ councils and disbanding them. The flourishing of workers’ democracy was directly counterposed to their project: taking over the capitalist state and legislating reforms would be impossible if the capitalist state were destroyed by revolutionary workers.
The revolutionaries’ organisation, the KPD, was new. It formed during the revolution, in an attempt to unite those workers who saw the need revolution. Its members in workplaces across the country were principled, courageous and dedicated. But it was too small and inexperienced.
In the decisive battles of revolutions, the best organised win. Whereas the Russian workers had the experienced mass Bolshevik party, the German working class did not possess a revolutionary organisation with the size and depth required to defeat the reformists. The KPD had been founded too late.
In 1919 the reformists drowned the revolution in blood. Workers were slaughtered in Berlin by soldiers. The soldiers were armed and instructed by the government that had been installed by the reformists in tandem with the capitalists.
Among the dead lay Rosa Luxemburg.
She refused to leave the city while workers were being cut down around her. She was captured by soldiers, beaten and murdered. Her body was weighted with stones and thrown into the Landwehr Canal, and the reformists bore responsibility for her death. Historian Pierre Broue wrote: “[T]wo days before, [social democratic newspaper] Vorwärts had published what was nothing less than a call for the murder of ‘Karl, Rosa and partners’… It was men gathered, armed, and in the end protected by [the reformist politician] Noske and the Social-Democratic ministers who carried out the assassinations.”
Rosa Luxemburg’s murder was a shocking blow to the revolutionary movement. Lost was one of the most talented polemicists and sharpest wits the world has ever seen. Her theoretical abilities and her insight, her ability to drill to the centre of a problem and undo it from the inside – all of these were smashed in the skull with a rifle and thrown into the water.
The day before she died, while around her the revolutionary movement was being shot and tortured, she penned a fierce argument to the world titled “Order reigns in Berlin”.
It started and ended by exclaiming that the revolution would rise again. “‘Order prevails in Warsaw!’ ‘Order prevails in Paris!’ ‘Order prevails in Berlin!’ Every half-century that is what the bulletins from the guardians of ‘order’ proclaim from one center of the world-historic struggle to the next. And the jubilant ‘victors’ fail to notice that any ‘order’ that needs to be regularly maintained through bloody slaughter heads inexorably toward its historic destiny; its own demise.”
But without a revolutionary organisation that had been tried and tested through time, as the Russian Bolsheviks had been, these revolutions would not culminate in a final victory.
“The leadership failed. But a new leadership can and must be created by the masses and from the masses. The masses are the crucial factor. They are the rock on which the ultimate victory of the revolution will be built.”
Unlike the SPD, this organisation must be dedicated to the action of the masses, not the manoeuvres of parliamentarians.
“The revolutionary struggle is the very antithesis of the parliamentary struggle. In Germany, for four decades we had nothing but parliamentary ‘victories.’ We practically walked from victory to victory. And when faced with the great historical test of [the war], the result was the devastating political and moral defeat, an outrageous debacle and rot without parallel.”
Today, Rosa Luxemburg is often presented as a reformist alternative to Bolshevism. For reformists to claim her, they have to misrepresent her. Luxemburg is held up to justify building the same type of political organisation as the one that ordered her murder.
Stalin, too, attempted to portray Luxemburg as being inclined towards reformism. In an attempt to smear her alongside Trotsky, he accused her of having “declared for the Mensheviks and against the Bolsheviks”.
Trotsky defended her, writing that it was “our duty to shield Rosa’s memory from Stalin’s calumny that has been caught by the hired functionaries of both hemispheres, and to pass on this truly beautiful, heroic, and tragic image to the young generations of the proletariat in all its grandeur and inspirational force”.
After Marx’s death, Lenin explained, “[D]uring the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons ... robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it”.
Let’s not vulgarise or blunt Rosa Luxemburg in her death. Her life was one of revolutionary agitation and organising. She stood not for reformism, but for working class revolution to smash the capitalist state. She set up Germany’s first modern communist party in order to cohere the fight against reformist organisations, in the midst of a workers’ revolutionary uprising.
Let her speak for herself in her final words, penned in righteous fury against the reformists and ruling class alike:
“You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons,’ and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing:
“‘I was, I am, I shall be!’”