Rosa Luxemburg: revolutionary hero

January 17, 2009

Rosa Luxemburg, one of the great figures of the socialist movement, was callously murdered in Berlin on January 15, 1919.

By cruelly smashing her brains out with a rifle butt, the German social democrats who ordered her killing silenced one of the socialist movement's most articulate voices and one of the most passionate defenders of the right of workers to revolt.

Born in 1871 in the provincial Polish town of Zamosc, she joined the underground revolutionary movement at age 16.

Within two years the police chased her into exile in Switzerland. It is said that she managed to talk a reactionary priest into helping her escape by pretending that her Jewish parents were preventing her from marrying a Catholic.

In Switzerland she studied economics and natural sciences and honed her theoretical skills in the intense debates raging in emigre Marxist circles.

When she joined the German Social Democratic party (SPD) in 1898 she debated with Eduard Bernstein, an established SPD leader who denied Marxism was a revolutionary doctrine.

Her incisive articles on the subject were published together in a famous pamphlet - widely known today as Reform or Revolution.

In 1903 she debated with Lenin, differing with him on the Marxist attitude to the right of nations to self-determination.

In 1904 her political work was briefly interrupted when she was jailed for "insulting the Kaiser".

She fully supported the 1905 Russian revolution and wrote numerous articles in its defence publications for her Polish comrades. Marrying action with her words she clandestinely entered Poland (then still part of the Russian Imperial empire) and worked underground until she was captured in 1906. Luckily, her German nationality allowed her to be released after only four months imprisonment.

Generalising from the 1905 Russian experience she concluded: "The mass strike is the first natural spontaneous form of every great revolutionary proletarian action." Her commitment to the revolutionary spirit of workers in action was her distinguishing feature.

She attempted to theoretically underpin her attitude to imperialist plunder by analysing the international development of capitalism in a major work on economics titled The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to the Economic Explanation of Imperialism. Her analysis, though flawed, showed that she was grappling with exactly the same question that Lenin was able to master in his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Six months before the outbreak of World War I, Luxemburg was arrested again for inciting soldiers to mutiny. She had told the troops that if they were ordered to "murder our French or other foreign brothers" they should answer "no, under no circumstances".

Her courtroom speech, in which she turned the tables on her prosecutors, was later published as Militarism, War and the Working Class, is an anti-imperialist classic.

She received a year long sentence, but was not immediately locked up. She simply left the courtroom and repeated her revolutionary anti-war statements at a mass meeting!

When WWI broke out the entire SPD leadership capitulated to the war fever. Her famous 1915 Junius Pamphlet — a denunciation of the war written from her prison cell — still stands as a monument to the civilising call of socialism in the face of imperialist war.

She devastatingly wrote: "Bourgeois society faces a dilemma; either a transition to Socialism, or a return to barbarism ... we face the choice: either the victory of imperialism and the decline of all culture, as in ancient Rome — annihilation, devastation, degeneration, a yawning graveyard; or the victory of Socialism — the victory of the international working class consciously assaulting imperialism and its method: war. This is the dilemma of world history, either — or; the die will be cast by the class-conscious proletariat."

The October 1917 Bolshevik revolution inspired Luxemburg immensely, even though, true to form, she still maintained a certain intellectual distance from the Bolsheviks.

Freed from prison by rebellious German workers in November 1918, Luxemburg threw herself into the work of building the revolutionary movement. Unfortunately, her right wing SPD ex-comrades were ruthlessly suppressing all dissent, organising bands of armed thugs to attack the workers movement.

Hours before her murder Rosa Luxemburg wrote: "The leadership has failed. Even so, the leadership can and must be recreated from the masses and out of the masses. The masses are the decisive element, they are the rock on which the final victory of the revolution will be built."

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