Women fighters and revolutionaries
Rosa Luxemburg: A life inspired
Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland, 1871 - the year of the Paris
Commune. In her short lifetime she experienced three major revolutions
and participated in the most important debates amongst socialists
They did not then have a model of a successful socialist
revolution, but were trying to grapple with how workers would move
into struggle and become conscious of the need to change society. Rosa
was a thinking and 'creative' Marxist, ready to defend the ideas of
Marx and Engels but prepared to develop them when necessary.
Hers was an inspirational life, exuding passion and determination,
She was passionate in her love of life, about her beliefs and
principles and her desire to see an end to all exploitation and
oppression. She showed courage and determination, standing firm when
in a minority or facing repression, imprisonment, illness, even death.
Rosa became involved in revolutionary politics when she was still
at school in Poland. At the age of 18, state repression forced her
into exile in Zurich.
When Rosa moved to Germany in 1898 she had already established
herself amongst international socialists as a Marxist speaker and
thinker. She became active in the German Social Democratic Party (SPO),
the largest working-class party in the world. By 1912 it had amassed
one million members, 15,000 full-time party workers, 90 daily
newspapers, youth and women's sections and 2.5 million affiliated
The party described itself as Marxist and revolutionary but had
never been tested in struggle. The end of the nineteenth century saw
an economic upswing allowing the German ruling class to buy a degree
of industrial peace through some economic and social improvements. But
the repressive regime restricted political activity.
Despite her youth and the internationally recognised political
authority of the German SPD leaders, Rosa would speak out if she
disagreed with their political orientation. Sometimes she confronted
overt sexism from an overwhelmingly male leadership unaccustomed to
confident female revolutionary leaders.
Her first real test came when Eduard Bernstein, an SPD leader,
challenged the basic ideas of Marxism. Capitalism, he argued, had
overcome its basic contradictions, Economic crises had been eliminated
through credit, the development of monopolies and 'globalisation', The
SPD should no longer stand for class struggle and revolutionary change
but economic, social and political reform within the existing system.
In her famous pamphlet Social reform or revolution Rosa Luxemburg
argued that capitalism may have experienced a prolonged economic
upswing but it hadn't solved its contradictions. Credit could only
temporarily delay a crisis and would also intensify it, Monopoly
capitalism had not eradicated competition which was sharpening between
the imperialist countries resulting in further conflict when war broke
out in 1914.
Bernstein's theory of gradual reform of capitalism was utopian, she
argued. As capitalism moved into crisis the capitalist class would
attack the wages and conditions of workers. The fight for
revolutionary change in society was as relevant as ever.
How do working people become conscious that society needs to be
transformed and that they have the power to change it? For Rosa,
reform and revolution were inextricably linked.
By struggling for economic, social and democratic reforms on a
daily basis, workers become more confident, better organised and aware
of the need to fight for a fundamental transformation in the way
society is structured.
Bernstein's arguments were defeated at three SPO congresses. But
over the next few years the gap between revolutionary theory and
practice widened. Day-to-day activities, especially standing in
parliamentary elections, became increasingly divorced from the
struggle for revolutionary change. Sections of the leadership were
conservative arid bureaucratised, holding back the movement of the
Rosa, more than anyone else, recognised the dangers. She waged a
constant struggle against reformism within the SPD. When revolution
broke out in Russia in 1905 she grasped the opportunity to try and
shake the leadership out of its conservative complacency.
A new historical period was opening up. In The Mass Strike she
describes how Russian workers were striking in their thousands; how
their strikes became generalised and political giving confidence to
less organised workers to strike for their own economic demands.
She lambasted the SPD leaders who argued that mass strikes were
purely Russian and not relevant to Germany. The growing crisis of
capitalism would push the German working class into following their
Russian brothers and sisters, she argued.
Rosa emphasised the spontaneous nature of the strike movement. Some
critics have used this to argue that Rosa ignored the role that a
revolutionary socialist party plays, believing that spontaneous mass
movements alone would be sufficient to change society. This is a crude
misrepresentation of Rosa's thinking.
Her aim was to shake up the ossified German leadership who either
thought that mass strikes were irrelevant or could be organised at
will by the party regardless of economic social and political
She bent the stick towards spontaneity but also recognised the
necessity of a revolutionary party, which could unite together the
most conscious workers to give a lead in a revolutionary situation. In
her words, the party must not 'fold its arms" and wait for a
spontaneous movement of the people to 'fall from heaven" but
instead "hurry on ahead of the development of things and seek to
But in the concrete situation in Germany Rosa didn't draw the
necessary organisational conclusions. She was confident that when
German workers moved into struggle they would either push the SPD
leaders into taking a more revolutionary position, or replace them in
the course of struggle.
Lenin was critical of this approach, as he was of Rosa's position
on the national question. In Russia he pursued a very different
course, patiently pulling together a core of revolutionary Marxists
around a clearly defined political programme. Politically and
organisationally cohesive, the Bolsheviks successfully gave leadership
to the revolutionary movement in Russia, 1917.
Rosa's failure to organise a coherent political and organisational
opposition to the SPD leadership proved fatal both to the outcome of
the German revolution and to her own life. Individual political and
personal courage were on there own insufficient for the historical
tasks at hand.
The bankruptcy of the SPD leadership was laid bare in 1914 when
they backed the war aims of the German capitalist class. Only a
handful of revolutionaries around Rosa Luxemburg initially opposed the
imperialist war. Rosa herself spent much of the war in prison.
In 1916 an attempt was made to strengthen organised revolutionary
opposition to the war through the formation of the Spartacus League.
Though it attracted some of the best youth and workers in Germany it
remained a loose 'network' rather than a cohesive political party.
When the German revolution finally erupted in November 1918, the
Spartacus League and its successor the German Communist Party (KPD)
(formed in the heat of the revolution) were too weak to lead the
working class to successfully overthrow capitalism as the Bolsheviks
had in Russia 1917.
The state forces, with SPD leaders at their head, reasserted
control and crushed the revolution, brutally murdering Rosa Luxemburg,
Karl Liebnecht and many other heroic revolutionary workers.
As the revolution faced imminent defeat and she faced possible
death, Rosa confidently wrote: 'The revolution will come back and
announce I was, am, I shall be". Within five years of her death,
she was proved right as revolution broke in Germany 1923.
As socialists today we maintain Rosa's confidence that
working-class people will struggle to change society. But we combine
that confidence with a determination to learn from her mistakes and
build a party, which can ensure that next time the struggle, will be