Rosa Luxembourg delivering a speech at a rally, Stuttgart, Germany, 1907. (Left) portrait of Ferdinand Lassalle (1825–1864), socialist leader and a founder of the predecessor of the Social Democratic Party. (Archiv der Friedrich Ebert-Striftung)

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Luxemburg, Rosa

(1870–1919), political writer, activist, and economist. Born in Zamość to a maskilic family, Rosa Luxemburg was the daughter of Elia Luxemburg, a wood merchant, and Lina Loewenstein. In the mid-1870s, the family moved to Warsaw where in 1888 Luxemburg graduated from a Russian high school, in which she belonged to student underground groups that studied Polish literature and history. In 1888, she joined the Polish socialist underground organization Proletariat. Pursued by the police, she escaped to Zürich, where she studied first natural sciences, and, from 1892, political science and economics. There, in 1890, Luxemburg met Leo Jogiches, a Jewish Russian revolutionary from Vilna who became her partner. Although their liaison lasted only until 1907, he remained her political mentor for the rest of her life.

In Switzerland, Luxemburg and Jogiches belonged to circles of Russian, Jewish, Polish, and German socialist émigrés, and in 1893, they founded the Polish Social Democratic party (SDKP; SDKPiL from 1900). In her doctoral dissertation, she argued that the industrial development of Congress Poland was leading to the integration of Polish lands with the rest of Russian Empire, the main market for Polish industry. This process, in her view, made Polish independence a chimera, since it had the support of neither the bourgeoisie nor the workers. In order to make the European workers’ struggle for emancipation more effective, the social-democratic movement ought to refrain from deconstructing multinational empires. This constituted the key aspect of Luxemburg’s strategic doctrine, in which she opposed even Karl Marx’s ideas concerning Polish independence. For the same reasons, she was at odds with the idea of separate organizations for Jewish workers, including the Bund.

In May 1898, Luxemburg moved to Berlin. Very soon, supported by August Bebel and Karl Kautsky, she became one of the leading political writers of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). She also gained international acclaim through her polemics with Eduard Bernstein, one of the founders of democratic socialism, who advocated giving up Marx’s theory of socialist revolution and adopting instead the model of an evolutionary way to a socialist society. Luxemburg’s anti-Bernstein pamphlet Sozialreform oder Revolution (Social Reform or Revolution; 1889) became a canonical text of orthodox Marxism. She was also a leading writer for the Polish Social Democratic Party and an author of its main programmatic texts, including the key pamphlet Czego chcemy. Komentarz do programu SDKPiL (What Do We Want? A Commentary to the Program of the SDKPiL; 1906). In 1904, she became a member of the International Socialist Bureau, the leading body of the Second International (1889–1914).

Following the birth of Bolshevism, in June 1904 Luxemburg published the article “Organizationsfragen der russischen Sozialdemokratie” (Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy) in Die neue Zeit, the theoretical journal of the SPD. Here, she was highly critical of the antidemocratic ideas for a workers’ party suggested by Lenin. After the beginning of the democratic revolution in Russia in 1905, the problem of abolishing the tsarist regime began to play a prominent role in Luxemburg’s Polish and German political journalism. Following the anti-tsarist uprising in Moscow in December 1905, she left secretly for Warsaw (Congress Poland was one of the main scenes of the 1905 Revolution) with Jogiches, hoping that the tsarist regime was coming to an end. Deeply impressed by gigantic spontaneous political strikes in the Russian Empire, she came to the conclusion that broad mass activities rather than revolutionary conspiracy played a decisive role in the pace and success of every revolution.

On 4 March 1906, Luxemburg and Jogiches were arrested by the Russian police. After a few months spent in a Warsaw prison, in September 1906 she secretly left the Russian Empire and returned to Berlin. Thereafter, she focused on the struggle for democratization of the German state, criticizing the SPD for avoiding political confrontation with militaristic circles around the kaiser and for giving up the idea of organizing mass political strikes and fighting for a republican system in Germany. Opposition to German militarism became one of the main themes in her political writing. Thousands attended her rallies.

In 1908 and 1909, Luxemburg published a series of articles titled Kwestia narodowościowa i autonomia (The National Question and Autonomy) in the journal of SDKPiL, Przegląd Socjaldemokratyczny—her most important work on nations and nationalism. She analyzed the consequences of capitalism, especially among nations that lacked independence and had to defend their rights to cultural autonomy in the context of multiethnic states. As far as the Jewish question was concerned, she argued that there was only one way leading to emancipation: political integration of Jews with societies among whom they lived and their participation in the general struggle for equal rights. Luxemburg considered Yiddish to be merely a jargon, distorted German, not capable of becoming the basis for a separate Jewish culture. She did, however, fight against antisemitism in her political writing, particularly when it intensified in Congress Poland following the 1905 Revolution.

From 1907 on, Luxemburg was increasingly involved with developing economic theory. Her study Die Akkumulation des Kapitals, published in 1913, was her most important theoretical work and was translated into many languages. A pioneering study of capitalism in its phase of globalization, it analyzed the role in this process played by the less developed parts of the world. Her book entered the canon of world economic literature.

On 20 February 1914, Luxemburg was sentenced to a year in prison for her antimilitaristic speech at a rally in Freiburg in which she accused German officers of torturing army recruits. Her case became an international affair and the sentence was suspended. Together with Jean Jaurès, Camille Huysmans, and other leaders of the Second International, she tried to prevent the world war until the very last minute by calling for mass protest rallies and parliamentary opposition. She experienced a nervous breakdown after the leaders of the parliamentary faction of SPD in the Reichstag voted in August 1914 in favor of allocating funds for the war and witnessing the passivity of the broad masses. With Karl Liebknecht, Klara Zetkin, and Franz Mehring, Luxemburg began to organize an antiwar faction within the SPD, first under the name Die Internationale and from 1916 as Spartakus.

Arrested again in February 1915, Luxemburg was released in February 1916, only to be arrested again in July, this time as a preventative measure. While in jail she was informed about the October 1917 Revolution in Russia. Luxemburg was enthusiastic at first, hoping that other countries would bring the slaughter of the war to an end through a sovereign decision of the masses. However, when news about the revolutionary terror and the concentration of all political decisions in the hands of a narrow group of Bolshevik politicians reached her, she reacted with her famous work, Die russiche Revolution. Eine kritische Würdigung (The Russian Revolution: A Critical Appreciation), in which she thoroughly criticized the Bolshevik style. Luxemburg opposed the notion of a revolution carried out as a coup d’état. Although her manuscript was smuggled out of prison, her comrades decided that her criticism of the Bolshevik revolution was ill-timed, and the book was published only in 1922.

Released from prison in Breslau by the German revolution on 9 November 1918, Luxemburg moved to Berlin, where she was put in charge of the new daily, Die rote Fahne, Spartakus’s press organ. The organization still belonged to the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), formed in April 1917 by SPD politicians, who opposed German participation in the war. Luxemburg and Jogiches participated in the founding congress (30 December 1918–1 January 1919) of the German Communist Party (KPD) and were elected to its leadership. They opposed the idea of creating a Communist International in Moscow, fearing it would lead to domination by the Bolsheviks.

In early January 1919, Luxemburg and Jogiches realized that Germany would not allow a socialist revolution. Nevertheless, with a group of members of Spartakus, Karl Liebknecht started an uprising against the German government on 5 January 1919. The rebellion was crushed with the help of volunteers of the remaining units of the German army, the Freikorps—forerunners of the Nazi movement—which began hunting the members of Spartakus. Luxemburg and Liebknecht hid in Berlin but on 15 January they were denounced and on the same day murdered by the officers of the Freikorps. On 10 March 1919, Leo Jogiches was murdered as well.

In 1931, Stalin officially condemned Luxemburg for her anti-Bolshevik attitudes, and her work was no longer published in the USSR or, after 1945, anywhere in the Soviet bloc. In the German Democratic Republic, her legend was—despite the meaning of her work—used for legitimization of the Communist regime.

Suggested Reading

Gérard Bensussan, “Rosa Luxemburg et la question juive,” Les temps modernes 472 (1985): 652–668; Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson, eds., The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (New York, 2004); Rosa Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke (Berlin, 1970–1990); J. Peter Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1966).