Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg is a significant historical figure and evidence of the triumphs that can be achieved in the face of great adversity. Rosa Luxemburg was a Jewish girl with a health condition, who grew up in the late-19th century Russian sector of Poland. She became a socialist feminist icon who is still remembered today for her thoughts and her actions.

Rosa Luxemburg Rosa Luxemburg

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    In this article, we are going to explore her life, biography, her thoughts, feminism and her legacy.

    Rosa Luxemburg biography

    Rosa Luxemburg was a Jewish Polish-German fundamentalist socialist and anti-war activist, born in Poland in 1871.

    Socialism: it's a political theory based on the idea that the means of production are owned by the people for the collective benefit. A revolutionary socialist is someone who thinks the social changes necessary to achieve socialism can only be achieved through a revolution.

    Although while she grew up, antisemitism was strong and women's role in society was still low, Rosa Luxemburg came from a fairly wealthy and educated family. She had a health condition as a child which made her bed-bound at the age of five when she taught herself to read and write.

    Rosa Luxemburg Rosa Luxemburg age 12 StudySmarterFig. 1 Rosa Luxemburg age 12

    Luxemburg went on to study law and political economy in Zurich, eventually achieving a doctorate. This is where she met Leo Jogiches with whom she established the Polish Social Democratic Party.

    The Polish Social Democratic Party

    A group which fought for Polish independence from Russia and to take on the Polish Socialist Party. This would then lead to the creation of the Polish Communist Party.

    Luxemburg was fluent in Polish and German, she also spoke Russian and French. She lived in Poland, Germany, Switzerland, and Finland. She was the first Polish woman, and one of the first in the world, to get a doctorate in Economics. In her life, she published many articles, pamphlets, and books on revolutionary political and economic subjects. Due to her activism, she was imprisoned several times, in multiple countries.

    She lived through the World War I, two Russian revolutions and the German revolution of 1918-1919, which led to her assassination.

    Rosa Luxemburg's views

    Luxemburg is known as a fundamentalist socialist. This means that she strongly believed that socialism couldn’t be achieved alongside capitalism.

    Capitalism: it's a political and economic system whereby the means of production are owned by private individuals, with profit as the objective. It's often considered in opposition to socialism.

    In 1899, she published Social Reform or Revolution1. In this book, she argued that there must be a revolution for the proletariat to succeed. However, she didn’t agree with Marx or Lenin on how this revolution should take place. Marx believed that there should be a complete revolution, Lenin believed in a planned revolution, and Luxemburg believed in a spontaneous revolution. She believed that a revolution was the only way to stop the exploitation caused by the capitalist system.

    Proletariat: it's a communist and socialist term to refer to working-class people collectively.

    Luxemburg believed that capitalism was full of contradictions that would lead to its own demise. She explored this idea in her book The Accumulation of Capital (1913)2. Here Luxemburg explained that capitalism thrived on the exploitation of territories and business, but once the capitalists ran out of these, there would be no further advancement, which would lead to its end.

    According to Luxemburg, the capitalist state needed to be abolished, and this must be done by mass strike action by the proletariat, which would lead to an eventual revolution.

    After this revolution took place, the state must become a socialist democracy where individuals had freedom of speech and non-corrupt elections. This sets her apart from what Marx and Lenin proposed: a dictatorship of the proletariat.

    Luxemburg's Ideological Position

    The main way Rosa Luxemburg's thought broke off from mainstream socialism was her commitment to democracy, specifically socialist democracy. This was in opposition to a socialist dictatorship led by the socialist party as promoted by Lenin. She believed that the freedoms inherent in a democratic society, where everyone can express themselves, had to be the core of any system that came after the revolution.

    Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life."3

    Rosa Luxemburg feminism

    Compared to the breath of her written work, Luxemburg didn't write much on feminism specifically and wasn't active in any feminist movements. However, her life and her analysis of exploitation, exemplify the feminist struggle. Luxemburg lived outside the mould of what it was to be a stereotypical “woman” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: her level of education alone, proves this.

    The worst and most brutal advocates of the exploitation and enslavement of the proletariat are entrenched behind throne and altar, as well as behind the political enslavement of women. Monarchy and women’s lack of rights have become the most important tools of the ruling capitalist class."4

    Rosa Luxemburg Rosa Luxemburg StudySmarterFig. 2 Rosa Luxemburg

    Luxemburg strongly supported the movement for women's suffrage. In her speech, Women's Suffrage and Class Struggle4, she argued for women's suffrage on various grounds:

    • as a matter of principle;

    • as a logical consequence of women's level of political involvement;

    • because of women's contributions to society through their paid employment;

    • because (working-class) women gaining the vote, would have led to a much stronger fight against capitalism.

    Rosa Luxemburg the Russian Revolution

    The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a mass uprising throughout the Russian Empire against the Tsar, the nobility and the ruling class.

    Tsar: the emperor, or monarch, of Russia until the Russian Revolution of 1917.

    At the beginning of the revolution, Luxemburg smuggled herself into Warsaw, Poland, where 93.2% of the industrial workers went on strike5. Rosa saw the revolution's potential for democratising Russia and wrote many articles in Polish and Russian about the revolution. Because of her involvement in supporting the uprising, Tsarist authorities arrested her. She kept writing and smuggling her works from prison, and eventually was able to escape back to Germany.

    The Russian Revolution of 1905 led to some constitutional reform by the Tsar and to the creation of the Duma, the multi-party system. However, its main legacy was setting the ground for the Russian Revolution of 1917 which ended with the execution of the Tsar and the abolishment of the monarchy.

    Rosa Luxemburg socialist internationalism

    Unlike Vladimir Lenin, who was a strong promoter of national self-determinism, Luxemburg was a staunch believer in socialist internationalism. She believed that the proletariat of the world should strike together, united in opposition to capitalism. She resisted the eruption of World War I which she saw as a war based on nationalistic grounds.

    When the party she was part of, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP), supported the war effort, Luxemburg split from them. Together with Karl Liebnecht and Clara Zetkin, they founded the Spartacus League.

    National self-determinism is the political separation between independent nation-states. Lenin understood national self-determination as the only way to unite and galvanise the revolutionary spirit of the proletariat (the oppressed). This would lead to them bringing down the bourgeoisie (the oppressors) and with them, capitalism.

    The Spartacus League

    The Spartacus League was a socialist revolutionary group active in Germany from 1914 to 1919. It emerged from the illegally published Spartacus pamphlets, many of which were written by Luxemburg while in prison.

    The Spartacus League became the German Communist Party in 1919 and encouraged the Berlin uprising, also called the Spartacus revolt, that lead to the imprisonment and assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The revolt occurred in connection with the November Revolution, which happened in response to Germany's loss in WWI. The Spartacus revolt was motivated by the Communist Party's want for setting up a council republic (a proletariat government) similar to the one set up by the Bolsheviks (far-left party led by Lenin) in Russia. This was in opposition to the views of the SDP.

    Rosa Luxemburg death

    The Spartacist uprising became armed. In response to this, the execution of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht was ordered by the German Chancellor and SDP leader Friedrich Ebert. They were executed without trial by an elite paramilitary unit who were tasked with squashing the uprising. Many other members of the uprising were also killed. The perpetrators were tried retrospectively and, arguably, they were given sentences that didn't reflect the gravity of their actions.

    Luxemburg's violent death led to her and Liebknecht being considered martyrs of socialism. There are still annual commemorations at the cemetery where they were eventually buried. Luxemburg's legacy lies in the impact of her contributions to socialist thinking.

    Many books and articles have been written on Rosa Luxemburg to analyse her thinking and her revolutionary methods. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, for example, is a German left-wing political education organisation that aims to promote democratic socialism with an internationalist focus. It stands for workers' and women's rights, and it's strongly anti-fascist and anti-racist6.

    Rosa Luxemburg - Key takeaways

    • Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish-German revolutionary, fundamentalist socialist.
    • Luxemburg valued the freedoms inherent in democracy and wanted to see a socialist democracy with an internationalist focus.
    • Rosa Luxemburg's personal example and analysis of oppression make her a socialist feminist icon.
    • Luxemburg founded the Spartacus league with Karl Liebknecht. The Spartacus League then became the German Communist Party.
    • The Spartacus league supported the Spartacist uprising. This led to Luxemburg and Liebknecht's assassination.
    • Her views and her violent death meant that Rosa Luxemburg's legacy is still strong in socialist thinking and organisations.

    References

    1. Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution, 1899
    2. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, 1913
    3. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, 1910
    4. Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Suffrage and Class Struggle 1912
    5. Robert Blobaum, Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL: A Study of the Origins of Polish Communism, 1984
    6. Rosalux. de
    7. Fig. 1 Rosa Luxemburg age 12 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosa_Luxemburg,_zw%C3%B6lfj%C3%A4hrig.jpg) by unknown author National Library of Israel, Schwadron collection licenced (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:GLAM_National_Library_of_Israel) by CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/) on Wikimedia Commons
    8. Fig. 2 Rosa Luxemburg (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosa_Luxemburg_(27675721178).jpg) by Cassowary Colorizations (https://www.flickr.com/people/150300783@N07) licenced by CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Rosa Luxemburg

    Who is Rosa Luxemburg?

    Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish-German socialist born in 1871 in Poland.

    What are Rosa Luxemburg’s political views?

    Luxemburg is known as a fundamentalist socialist. This means that she strongly believed that socialism couldn’t be achieved alongside capitalism. 


    In 1899, she published Social Reform or Revolution.1 In this book, she argued that there must be a revolution for the proletariat to succeed.

    What are Rosa Luxemburg’s selected political writings?

    Social Reform or Revolution (1899)

    The Accumulation of Capital (1913)

    What is the accumulation of capital according to Rosa Luxemburg?

    It's the idea that capitalism thrives on the exploitation of territories and business. However, once the capitalists run out of these, there will be no advancement. Thus, capitalism has in itself the seed of its own destruction.

    What are Rosa Luxemburg’s beliefs?

    She believed in a revolution that was spontaneous and led by a mass strike of class-consciouss individuals.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What did Luxemburg study in university?

    Which book did Luxemburg write which explained her views on revolution?

    What type of socialist was Luxemburg?

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