Rosa Luxemburg’s 150th birthday: Her work and ideas live on


Today, March 5, is the 150th birthday of Rosa Luxemburg, an outstanding revolutionary socialist leader in Poland, and later in Germany, where she helped to found and lead the Communist Party. She was born to a Jewish family in Zamosc, Poland (then controlled by Russia); two years later, the family moved to Warsaw. At age 15, she joined the Proletariat Party, and played a key role in organizing a general strike. She fled Poland in 1889 to escape arrest, and enrolled in the University of Zurich, where she focused on economic studies. She received a doctorate in Law in 1897, one of the few women at that time to be awarded a doctorate degree.

Luxemburg helped to found the Polish-language newspaper The Workers’ Cause. With Leo Jogiches, she co-founded the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. After moving to Berlin, in 1898, Luxemburg joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD). She adhered to the party’s left wing, where she denounced the opportunist leadership of the party. In her pamphlet “Reform or Revolution,” she criticized the revisionist, non-revolutionary theories of Eduard Bernstein, which influenced the social democrats in their path away from Marxism.

Luxemburg was an SPD delegate to a number of European congresses, where she spoke for workers’ solidarity to stop the imperialist drive toward war. However, when war broke out in 1914, the SPD voted to support Germany’s military effort. In response, Luxemburg organized antiwar demonstrations in Frankfurt, calling for resistance to military conscription; for this she was sentenced to prison for a year.

In August 1914, Luxemburg—along with Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin, and Franz Mehring—founded The International group, which became the Spartacus League in January 1916. The Spartacus League agitated for an antiwar general strike, for which Luxemburg and Liebknecht were sentenced in June 1916 to imprisonment of two and a half years. Her writings during this period were smuggled out of prison.

Clara Zetkin (left) with Rosa Luxemburg in 1910.

On Oct. 30, 1918, the crew of the battleship Thüringen refused to leave port for a suicidal mission against the Royal Navy. The resistance movement spread to cities throughout Germany; Luxemburg was freed from prison on Nov. 8. The protests reached Berlin on Nov. 9, where a general strike broke out. Armed workers ranged through the city. The army command announced the abdication of the emperor, and in an attempt to head off a workers’ revolution, handed the government over to the reformist head of the SPD, Friedrich Ebert, who proclaimed a republic and called for elections to a national assembly.

Later in the day, Liebknecht appeared on the balcony of the Royal Palace and declared the advent of the Free Socialist Republic of Germany. Ebert agreed to the demand of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards for a mass meeting to elect a Council of People’s Deputies, which would govern the country. Unfortunately, the meeting elected Ebert himself to head the new council. Thus strengthened, Ebert met with the army high command and promised to suppress the revolutionary councils and to promote a conventional parliamentary system.

On Jan 1, 1919, the Spartacus League became the Communist Party. The new party had several thousand members scattered around the country, including newly radicalized workers as well as the old core from the left wing of the Social Democratic Party. A group called the Left Radicals, who looked toward the Russian Bolsheviks as a model, also joined the new party.

A few days later, street fighting broke out in Berlin—the overture to events that became known to history as the Spartacus Uprising. Paul Frölich, Luxemburg’s biographer, states that in reality there was no Spartacus Uprising. The events were touched off by elements of the counter-revolution—the military and the Social Democratic Party top leadership. A workers’ occupation of the offices of the right social democratic newspaper Vorwärts was later revealed to have been instigated by a provocateur in the pay of the military command.

An armed workers’ demonstration was scheduled for Jan. 6. Although Karl Liebknecht endorsed the demonstration, Luxemberg urged caution. She pointed out that the working class was not yet prepared for an insurrection with the objective of taking power. The Communist Party had not yet won the allegiance of the majority of the working class.

Clara Zetkin later explained that Luxemburg saw the situation “in light of the level of political consciousness of broad layers of the population throughout Germany. In consequence, her demand for the overthrow of the Ebert government was for the time being only a propaganda catch-all slogan to rally the revolutionary proletariat rather than a tangible object of revolutionary fighting. …

“Because of this situation, the young Communist Party led by Rosa Luxemburg was faced with a difficult task involving many conflicts. It could not accept the aim of the mass action—the overthrow of the government—as its own; it had to reject it. But at the same time, it could not let itself be separated from the masses who had taken up the struggle. Despite their contrary attitudes, the party had to stand by the masses and remain among them in order to strengthen them in their struggle against the counter-revolution, and to further the process of their revolutionary maturation during the action by making them aware of the conditions enabling them to move forward” (quoted in Paul Frolich, “Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work”).

As the uprising spread around the country, the contending forces entered negotiations. But Ebert and the SPD leadership wanted a definitive victory; they used the military and the far-right paramilitary thugs of the Freikorps to crush the revolutionary leadership. The Communist Party headquarters was demolished, and leadership cadre were arrested and killed.

On Jan. 15, thanks to the work of an informant, Luxemburg and Leibknecht were traced to a house in the suburbs of Berlin, where they were arrested, tortured, and murdered by the Freikorps. Luxemburg’s body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal, and not recovered and identified until four months later. Her longtime comrade, Leo Jogiches, worked to expose the murder, publishing accounts by eyewitnesses; for that action, on March 10, he too was murdered.

But the Communist Party continued to grow, as did the radicalization of the German working class. Within the decade, unfortunately, the Stalinists had corrupted the revolutionary program of the world Communist movement. Due to Stalin’s sectarianism, the German CP refused to join a united front with the Social Democrats against the Nazis, allowing Hitler to come to power without a struggle. Numerous Communists, including many old Spartacus members, were sent to concentration camps and killed. In 1935, the Nazis demolished the modernist memorial to Luxemburg and Liebknecht, designed by Mies van der Rohe, that had been erected in Berlin—lest any symbols of their ideals remain.

Nevertheless, Rosa Luxemburg’s work and ideas live on. Leon Trotsky wrote soon after the murders: “We have suffered two heavy losses at once which merge into one enormous bereavement. There have been struck down from our ranks two leaders whose names will be forever entered in the great book of the proletarian revolution: Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.” Trotsky later defended Luxemburg against attempts by Stalin to distort and smear her legacy. (See:

And Lenin wrote about Luxemburg: “… in spite of her mistakes she was—and remains for us—an eagle. And not only will communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works (the publication of which the German communists are inordinately delaying, which can only be partly excused by the tremendous losses they are suffering in their severe struggle) will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of communists all over the world. ‘Since 4 August 1914, German Social-Democracy has been a stinking corpse’—this statement will make Rosa Luxemburg’s name famous in the history of the international working-class movement.”

The playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1919:

Red Rosa now has vanished too,
And where she lies is hid from view.
She told the poor what life’s about,
And so the rich have rubbed her out.
May she rest in peace.

Leave a Reply