Rosa Luxemburg, revolutionary fighter for workers and oppressed

At least 15,000 people marched in Berlin on Jan. 13 to mark 100 years since the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Photo: Junge Welt

One hundred years ago, on January 15, 1919, counterrevolutionaries murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, founders of the German Communist Party.

Rosa Luxemburg is often overlooked as one of history’s most important Marxist thinkers. She must also be remembered for her tremendous contributions to the international workers’ movement leading up to and following Russia’s Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917.

Luxemburg was born in 1871 to a Jewish family in Russian-occupied Poland. An accurate history of her life cannot overlook her Jewish identity. At the time, czarist Russia’s rulers often incited pogroms — mass murders — against Jewish communities.

Luxemburg’s childhood was rife with these violent acts of anti-Semitism, along with everyday experiences of anti-Jewish oppression. She also experienced ableism throughout her life because of a visible limp, the result of childhood illness.

At age 16, Luxemburg became involved with the revolutionary socialist movement in Poland, headed by the Proletariat Party. Under pressure from the police, she left Poland for Zurich, Switzerland, where she attended university and participated in the local labor movement.

She quickly became a main contributor to the Proletariat Party’s paper and one of its leading Marxist theoreticians. In 1898, Luxemburg obtained German citizenship and settled in Berlin, the heart of the international socialist movement at the time.

Rosa immediately took up work for the Social Democratic Party of Germany. She found the party dividing due to a growing reformist trend. Luxemburg quickly jumped to defend the principles of Marxism and revolutionary thought, and to call out reformism and revisionism in the movement.

In 1905, Luxemburg went to Czarist-controlled Warsaw to participate in the unsuccessful Russian revolution of that year, where she continued to secretly write for her party’s paper. After being imprisoned, she was expelled from the Russian Empire and returned to Germany with one of her most important theoretical ideas: that mass strikes constituted a most important aspect and necessity of the workers’ struggle for a socialist revolution.

Rosa Luxemburg speaks at a rally during the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart, Germany, 1907.

Revolutionary opposition to imperialist war

Many political writers emphasize Luxemburg’s theoretical disagreements with Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Bolshevik Party and leader of the Russian Revolution. Some do so in order to argue that Luxemburg was opposed to the Bolsheviks and to discredit the socialist nature of the October Revolution. In particular, they point out that Luxemburg challenged Lenin’s position on the right to self-determination for all oppressed peoples.

Nevertheless, Luxemburg and Lenin had far fewer differences than they had commonalities; in fact, they agreed on almost all fronts, and Lenin held Luxemburg in very high regard. From the start of World War I, both Karl Liebknecht and Luxemburg took the correct position against war and imperialism, in opposition with most of the social democratic movement at the time.

Between 1906 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, Luxemburg spread a revolutionary anti-war, anti-imperialist message among the masses. In 1910, a growing divide in the Social Democratic Party — between reformists who supported the prospect of German imperialist war and true anti-imperialist revolutionaries — reached its peak, and the party divided along those lines, with Rosa at the helm of the revolutionary grouping.

In 1914, the parliamentary representatives of the German Social Democratic Party voted unanimously — excluding one member, Karl Liebknecht — to back the German government in favor of the war. In response, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and a small number of other revolutionary socialists formed the Spartacus League, dedicating themselves to continuing the anti-war struggle in Germany, despite harsh repression.

From prison, Rosa highly praised Russia’s 1917 socialist revolution, issuing calls for German workers to join the international movement. In November 1918, German revolutionaries freed Luxemburg from prison and she hastily resumed agitating and organizing the masses. Her efforts helped reinvigorate the revolutionary socialist struggle in Germany, and in December 1918 she founded the German Communist Party alongside Karl Liebknecht.

In January 1919, workers in Berlin rose up, but their movement, lacking adequate preparation, was crushed. Just two months after her release from prison, German proto-fascists assassinated Luxemburg and Liebknecht with help from the right-wing Social Democrats, who betrayed their whereabouts and enabled the fascists’ agenda.

Luxemburg gave her life to the international socialist struggle, and must be remembered as a disabled, Jewish and revolutionary woman who made brilliant theoretical contributions to Marxist theory, strategy and tactics.