Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamosc, Poland, on 5 March 1871. Born in a Jewish family, she was afflicted with an ailment that left her with a permanent limp. After family moved to Warsaw, she joined a Gymnasium. In 1886, at the age of fifteen, she joined the Proletariat, the first left-wing socialist party founded in Poland. As a result of trying to organize a general strike, several leaders of the party were martyred. After passing her school examinations, Luxemburg had to escape abroad. She studied in Zurich, where she met Leo Jogiches. She studied economics, politics, philosophy and history.
In 1893, she, Jogiches and Julian Marchlewski founded a paper aimed at combating the in their view erroneous nationalist orientation of the Polish Socialist Party. Considering that support for Polish independence had been inscribed in the banner of international socialism for ages, and had the full support of Marx and Engels as well as Bakunin, the Anarchist, it was a daring stand, regardless of the assessment one makes of their position. The fact that for a long time, it was the PPS that received much greater support did not prevent them from waging a war with its nationalistic tendency. They argued that the struggle must be for a proletarian revolution and not for a petty bourgeois slogan of Polish independence.
Luxemburg married a German Social Democrat as a marriage of convenience to get German citizenship and moved to Germany. There, she did double work. On one hand, she worked among the Polish speaking workers, organizing them, a task that made her important for the German party, and on the other hand, she worked within Germany for the Polish revolutionaries, who would eventually set up, in alliance with Feliks Dzherzhinskii and others from Lithuania, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. It is interesting to note, that in the underground conditions, this organization was run by an émigré centre, and was if anything less open than the Bolsheviks would try to be. This is meant less as a criticism of Luxemburg, (though on occasion, as with the case of Karl Radek’s expulsion, she was extremely wrong and deserves criticism), and more as a reminder to those bourgeois ideologues as well as so-called Marxists who dishonestly try to pit Luxemburg against Lenin, arguing that Lenin was an authoritarian while Luxemburg was a democrat. Both of them believed in the need for working class democracy, though they often disagreed about its contents, and both sometimes made compromises on the question of democracy because they were fighting a ruthless class enemy in underground conditions.
What is underplayed is Luxemburg’s sustained hostility to revisionism, reformism, and centrism. When the Revisionism controversy broke out, she was a young outsider, while despite his views, Bernstein was an insider, the editor of the party paper during the underground period, a personal friend of so many leaders. Even Kautsky, admittedly very radical at that stage, battled Bernstein gingerly. The all out war was waged by the Russians and the Poles. It was Plekhanov who insisted that Bernstein’s attack on Hegel and dialectics should not pass unchallenged. And it was Alexander Helphand (Parvus) and Rosa Luxemburg who contested many of revisionism’s key contentions.
Unlike Kautsky, Luxemburg did agree that things had changed, and tactics need to change. Unlike Bernstein, however, she argued that revolution was on the agenda and attempted to develop the necessary tactics. This led her to the study of the political general strike, not as an artificial entity imposed from above at the call of an anarchist leadership, as the anarchist versus Marxist debate had seen it in the past, but as the consequence of political battles and economic struggles coming together.
Key arguments and essays of Luxemburg can be briefly mentioned here. Against Bernstein, who pleaded that socialists should stop trying to make revolutions and focus on Bernstein’s claim that the age of capitalist crises are over, she stressed that what was crucial was not whether the cycle was of ten years’ duration, but the fact that contradictions of capitalism did not go away.
What was worse, from the point of view not just of Bernstein, but of the entire labour bureaucracy, was her rejection of the claim that trade unions could adequately protect workers under capitalism. Without rejecting the value of trade unions, she pointed out that as long as the capitalists existed, victories trough trade union battles would remain transitory. Her words, calling these struggles the “labour of Sisyphus”, greatly enraged the labour bureaucrats.
Luxemburg and Kautsky agreed about the effect of socialists joining bourgeois governments. Where Luxemburg went further was to present a sharp case for what would happen if socialists did accept legalism. As she pointed out in 1902, if socialists pledged to abide by legalism, they would find reactionary violence at some point smashing up their parliamentary work. But this nowhere meant that she stood for mindless violence, as her writings and deed showed. The opposites were not parliament versus violence, but proletarian class struggle versus class compromises. Though she knew violence was sometimes inevitable, she abhorred any unnecessary bloodshed and certainly did not glorify violence.
Nor did she reject the struggle for reforms. Instead, she pointed out that reform and revolution complement each other, and yet are exclusive. Reform can only be carried out within the political structures created by the previous revolution. So reforms remain within bourgeois limits, even though reforms occur only because the working class fights for changes.
In The Mass strike, Luxemburg found the instrument whereby class consciousness is raised, through the struggle itself. She therefore rejected absolute separation between economic and political struggles, and stressed, in opposition to conservative bureaucrats in the German Party (this is to be noted, that the pamphlet, while drawing upon the experiences of the Russian revolution of 1905, was aimed at the German party, rather than the Russians in the first place.
After 1907, Kautsky began a retreat from his revolutionary positions. This resulted in sharp clashes with Luxemburg, who by 1910 was attacking Kautsky. The Russians, both Lenin and Trotsky, at this point tended to side with Kautsky. Lenin recognized that Luxemburg had been right in attacking Kautsky from 1910.
During World War I she took a consistent anti-war stand. She supported Karl Liebknecht, who declared that “the main enemy is at home”. It was at this stage that she and her co-thinkers decided that a split was necessary with the reformists, and even the Centrists.
Luxemburg has been criticized for her opposition to the Bolsheviks. This is b ased on complicated issues that can be barely touched upon in this short note. She opposed not just the Bolsheviks but the Russian party as a whole because it called for the right of Polish independence. On this question, her position is doubtful. But this does not mean she was under all circumstances opposed to national liberation, and she was as committed to anti-imperialism as anyone else on the left wing of Social Democracy.
She has been held up as one who opposed splits under all circumstances and did not recognize the need for a split. In Poland, however, the left had split from the PPS. And in Russia, Lenin had not been for a split all along. As late as the 1912 Conference, he wanted a split with the liquidator, but not with the pro-party Mensheviks (for example Plekhanov). Both Lenin and Luxemburg (and Trotsky) became convinced that a worldwide split was necessary only as a result of the betrayals during Wolrd War I. Luxemburg’s The Junius Pamphlet, Lenin’s writings on the collapse of the Second International, and Trotsky’s pamphlet War and the International, whatever their differences, agreed that the Second international had outlived itself.
Between 1914 and 1917, the Spartakusbund, formed by Luxemburg and her friends, functioned as part of a wider anti-war current, but as a Marxist stream in it. In 1917 that current became the USP. When the German revolution broke out the Spartakusbund formed a separate Communist Party.
Luxemburg’s stance during the Russian revolution has been consistently fought over, as also her earlier criticism of Lenin in 1904. Bertram D. Wolfe, an ex-communist who had become a Cold Warrior, retitled her essay Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy as Leninism or Marxism? On this question, Soma Marik’s essay on whether Luxemburg was really “anti-Leninist”, originally published in Society and Change, is worth reading.
In early 1918, Luxemburg did criticize the Bolsheviks. Some of her criticisms were perceptive. (see on this Soma Marik, Reinterrogating the Classical Marxist Discourses of Revolutionary Democracy). But on one key question, the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, which is held up constantly, she changed her political stance in course of the German revolution. In a seminar in Kolkata some years back, a very revolutionary person declared he would tear out those pages from er works if she had indeed done so. What she had said was important. Arguing against those who wanted to combine the German National Assembly with the Workers and Soldiers councils, she pointed out that a merger of bourgeois and proletarian democracy was impossible. This was what the Bolsheviks had also said.
Luxemburg was opposed to the insurrection of 1919. In response to it, the Right wing Social Democrats used ultra right forces, forerunners of the Nazi storm troopers, to smash the workers and murder Luxemburg and Liebknecht.