“I was, I am, I will be” – 150th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Luxemburg

"Rosa Luxemburg" (Image: Cassowary Colorizations/ CC)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Luxemburg (5 March), one of the most famous political figures of the last century. For the international workers’ movement, she is renowned as a dedicated socialist whose sacrifice and theoretical contributions to Marxism make her one of history‘s foremost revolutionaries. The close proximity of her birth date to International Women’s Day (8 March) means that this year, more than ever, Rosa Luxemburg’s courageous life and revolutionary ideas will be of great interest to many workers and youth.

‘Red Rosa’, as she became known in the workers’ movement, was born in 1871, in Zamość, in Russian-ruled Poland. She became politically active at an early age, joining the ‘Second Proletariat’ group while still at school. Due to these activities, Luxemburg was forced to flee to Switzerland shortly after finishing her studies in 1888. In 1898 she moved to Germany to work in the SPD (German Social Democrats), which, unlike the German SPD of today, was developing into a mass party of the working class. At that time, the social democrats had a clear anti-capitalist orientation, invoking Marxist doctrine. But there were already signs of a rift developing between the party’s programme and practice.

Some of the SPD leaders began to revise the party’s principled Marxist position. The SPD had emerged from illegality – imposed between 1878 and 1890 – by the repressive ‘Anti-Socialist Laws’ – and was rapidly gaining members and support. But there was mounting pressure on the party to ‘revise’ its Marxist legacy. Increasingly, leading members and elected representatives of the SPD shifted away from revolutionary ideas, arguing that capitalism could be overcome gradually through individual reforms.

Soon after her arrival in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg joined the controversy, taking a decisive stance against ‘revisionism’. In her remarkable work, ‘Reform or Revolution’, Luxemburg dissected the reformist arguments of Eduard Bernstein and defended the programme and methods of Marxism.

Reform or Revolution?

Many leading figures in the SPD were afraid that both the legality obtained by the party and its rapid growth might be jeopardised. This fear and the growth of an increasingly bureaucratic apparatus were among the factors that led them to increasingly avoid a clear confrontation with the system. They argued that it would be possible to overcome capitalism gradually, as opposed to the revolutionary path outlined by Marx and Engels. Rosa Luxemburg wrote: “Those who … favour the method of legislative reform in place of, 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 bringing about a new social order, the goal becomes merely the quantitative change of the old”.

While the SPD formally continued to call itself a revolutionary party, the reformist tendencies accommodating the party with capitalism grew, both in the party, and in the trade union that it led. This revisionist process was fully exposed through the final capitulation of the SPD parliamentary faction when it voted in support of ‘war credits’ needed to finance German imperialism’s role during the First World War. In December 1914, Karl Liebknecht was the first representative in the Reichstag to vote against war credits.

Unfortunately, today in Germany, reformist ideas remain prevalent. For instance, DIE LINKE (The Left Party), which is still considered by some people as a left alternative in the German parliament (Bundestag), is increasingly watering down its programme and abandoning unequivocal anti-capitalist positions in order to appear more “mainstream“ and “credible“. Their prime motive is to be seen as a reliable coalition partner to the now thoroughly pro-capitalist SPD and the Green parties. This approach is still sharply contested within DIE LINKE and its youth organisation by those around Socialist Organisation Solidarity (CWI in Germany), who follow to this day in the footsteps of Red Rosa.


The first time the labour movement seriously addressed the question of participation in government was in 1899, in France, when the ‘socialist’ Alexandre Millerand was appointed minister in the Waldeck-Rousseau pro-capitalist government. In a series of articles on ‘The Socialist Crisis in France’, Luxemburg spelled out her rigorous opposition to the idea that government participation was no different from participation in parliament. She argued: “In fact, there is no analogy here, but a complete contradiction: socialists enter parliament in order to fight against bourgeois class rule, on entering bourgeois government they take upon themselves the responsibility for the actions of this class rule”.

Likewise, many reformist elements within DIE LINKE today argue that progress for the working class can be achieved through participation in bourgeois government, while, at the same time, supporting social movements against such governments. But the fight for social reforms is not the same as taking responsibility for capitalist government policies.

Especially now, in the deepest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, being in government means bearing responsibility for measures designed to rescue capitalism. If DIE LINKE were to participate in national government with the SPD and/or the Greens, it is likely that many would initially see this as an opportunity for better, more left-wing policies. But expectations would soon be dashed. Inevitably such a government would introduce measures against the interests of the working class. At best, such compliance might initially be attributed to incompetence, but if there was no change in policy over time, the majority of workers would come to the conclusion that DIE LINKE is an establishment party like all others, abandoning political principle and implementing measures against the working class in order to hold on to political office.

Due to the policies supported by DIE LINKE, where it is involved locally in federal-state coalition governments, such as in Thuringia, the majority of people no longer consider it an alternative to the traditional capitalist parties.

DIE LINKE has an affiliated foundation named after Rosa Luxembourg. If it were to go further and take her ideas seriously, DIE LINKE would amount resolute opposition to all the capitalist parties in the Bundestag. It would support protest movements and workers’ struggles, and propose a programme of socialist demands.

The advances achieved through mass struggle in recent years will come under attack once the ruling class regroups and strikes back. It is already evident that important gains, such as maximum working hours and minimum rest periods in health care, for example, are being undermined. The leadership of DIE LINKE should therefore be explaining how long-term progress is possible only by getting rid of capitalism. This is a campaign that can be carried out by a socialist party in opposition but not by a party chained to coalition agreements designed to manage and uphold the capitalist system.

Rosa Luxemburg was under no illusions about this: “The role of Social Democracy, in bourgeois society, is in essence that of an opposition party. It can only enter government on the ruins of bourgeois society”.

The mass strike

The 1905 Russian revolution had a profound effect on discussions within the international labour movement, at the time. Although it was crushed, this event strengthened the revolutionary wing. There were extensive discussions about the lessons from 1905, for example, the role of the mass strike.

In the period running up to the 1905 revolution, massive strikes had already shaken the Russian Empire: individual strikes quickly spread like wildfire. Rosa Luxemburg recognised that the political action of a mass strike is one of the most important tools of the working class in its struggle for liberation.

The right-wing of the SPD and the trade union leaders, of the time, rejected this position, arguing that mass strikes are only possible when the entire working class is organised and trade union coffers are filled to the brim. On this sanctified day, the working class could then overcome capitalism with a powerful general strike. But the advent of such a “decisive day” is an utter illusion and no more than a sop to subdue the rank and file.

The fight for real change means engaging in the struggles that emerge and leading them by showing a way out of the crisis. But in doing so, socialists should always start at the existing level of current consciousness and offer ideas on how to take the next, necessary stages in the struggle. Rosa Luxemburg explained: ‘The expression of the will of the masses in political struggle cannot be artificially maintained at the same level or in the same form over an extended period. The struggle needs to be stepped up, accelerated, and take on new, more effective forms. Once ignited mass action must move forward. If the party leading the struggle fails to show the determination needed at a given moment or does not arm the masses with the necessary slogans, then inevitably certain disillusionment will set in, the élan dissipates and the movement collapses”.

The situation today is no different. The trade union leaders refuse to coordinate struggles in order to step up action and encourage questioning and understanding of existing capitalist relations. Instead, they remain trapped within the idea of social partnership and co-management, which, under the conditions of the current crisis, means that neither jobs and wages nor working conditions can be defended, but are being abandoned piece by piece. Unfortunately, DIE LINKE also falls short of the task of offering the trade unions a fighting alternative.

Revolutionary organisation

Outstanding as she was, Rosa Luxemburg was, like any Marxist leader, fallible. We can learn from the mistakes she made in her courageous life of political struggle. Her biggest error was not recognising early enough the need to build an organised revolutionary socialist opposition against the growing reformist currents in the SPD and labour movement. However, she had come up against a totally new phenomenon. The SPD faction’s approval of the war loans shocked Lenin so much that at first he thought it was fabricated news.

It was not until 1914 that Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht founded the ‘International Group’ (known from 1916 as the ‘Spartacus Group’) to bring together the socialist opposition in the SPD and the workers’ movement. It was not until New Year’s Eve, 1918, and thus weeks after the November Revolution in Germany, that the founding congress of the German Communist Party (KPD) took place. Consequently, the leadership of the young KPD did not have the experience needed to draw the right conclusions in that stormy period.

In January 1919, after the then SPD government provoked a premature attempt by Berlin workers at insurrection, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested and murdered by members of the Freikorps (a state-backed right-wing, irregular para-military forces) with the knowledge of the right-wing SPD leadership of Ebert and Noske. This was a terrible blow for the KPD and the entire labour movement, who lost two of their most capable leaders.

The creation of a revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks, and their ability to win mass support, were crucial to the success of the October 1917 Russian Revolution. The subsequent bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union was in the main due to the failure to complete the socialist revolution in Germany and worldwide.

Luxemburg is often portrayed as an opponent of the October Revolution because she criticised some of the theoretical ideas of the Bolsheviks, in particular, on the question of national self-determination. However, Rosa strenuously defended the revolution in Russia and fought to extend revolution in Germany. She wrote at the end of notes critical of some aspects of Bolshevik policy: “Whatever a party can muster, at an historic hour, in terms of courage, resolve, revolutionary vision and consistency, was delivered in full measure by Lenin, Trotsky, and their comrades. The revolutionary honour and commitment to action that was entirely lacking in the Social Democracy of the West was to be found in the Bolsheviks. In reality, their October insurrection not only saved the Russian Revolution, but also saved the integrity of international socialism”.

Rosa Luxemburg is without question one of the greatest socialist revolutionaries the world has ever seen. Today, we must defend her legacy and fight for a socialist world.





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March 2021