Every January, the streets of Berlin are flooded with thousands of revolutionaries, marching to commemorate the life of a great martyr for international socialism, Rosa Luxemburg. 82 years after her assassination by the Freikorps, a proto-fascist paramilitary organization sponsored by the leadership of the newly formed Weimar Republic to eliminate threats to “democratic” order, Luxemburg’s name remains synonymous with revolution.
Born on March 5, 1871 in Southwestern Poland, Rosa Luxemburg spent most of her early years in Warsaw (then a part of the Russian empire), where she joined the underground revolutionary movement at the age of 16. After attracting the attention of the authorities by her political activity, Luxemburg emigrated to Zurich, Switzerland in 1889, where she became acquainted with Marxist theory and made the acquaintance of a number of luminaries of the international socialist movement, many of whom made Zurich their home in exile.
In 1892, Luxemburg participated in the foundation of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), but soon left to form the Social-Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) after the former was taken over by Polish nationalists. In their pursuit of Polish nationhood, the PPS went on to repeatedly betray the cause of socialism and become a true force of reaction — after the First World War, they ended up supporting the reactionary dictatorship of Jozef Pilsudski. Meanwhile, Luxemburg’s SDKPiL remained fiercely committed to revolutionary internationalism. As a Polish Jew, Luxemburg was acutely aware of the poisonous chauvinism present in even the nationalism of an oppressed nation. Luxemburg and the SDKPiL maintained that the workers of Poland had more in common with their working class brothers and sisters in Germany, Russia and all other nations than with the Polish bourgeoisie.
In 1898, Luxemburg left Zurich for Berlin, where she joined the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), at that time still revered as the biggest, strongest and most authoritative voice in the international socialist movement. Luxemburg quickly made a name for herself in the German movement – months after her arrival in Germany, she published a pamphlet, Reform or Revolution? This pamphlet was a public challenge to Eduard Bernstein, a leading figure within the SPD who asserted that socialism could be brought to Germany without revolution, and that the party should drop all calls for revolution in favor of a gradualist strategy to win social reforms within the framework of capitalism. While agreeing that socialists must be steadfast fighters for any and all reforms that would improve the lives of workers and oppressed peoples, she rejected the notion that socialism could come about relying on reformism alone and insisted that the SPD uphold socialist revolution as its ultimate aim.
Luxemburg’s pamphlet quickly catapulted her into leadership circles within the SPD. Meanwhile, she continued to play a leading role in the illegal SDKPiL. During the Russian Revolution of 1905, Luxemburg moved to back Warsaw to take part in the upheaval. Impressed by the revolutionary tactics of the workers of Warsaw, Luxemburg sought to apply the lessons of the Russian revolution to Germany upon her return to Berlin. Promoting the general strike as a revolutionary tactic, Luxemburg faced resistance from an increasingly conservative layer of bureaucrats within the SPD.
Upon the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the slow rot of conservatism and reformism within the SPD reached a breaking point, as party leaders and parliamentarians came out in support of the German war effort. Socialist leaders of other nations followed suit, supporting their own nation’s imperialist bourgeoisie against the workers of the enemy nation. Rosa Luxemburg recognized this as a fundamental betrayal of socialist principles and the death knell for the Second, or Socialist International. Together with Karl Liebknecht, the only SPD parliamentarian to vote against Germany’s war budget, Luxemburg founded Spartakusbund, an underground revolutionary organization that called on workers to recognize their own imperialism as the main enemy. Advocating fraternization among soldiers of warring nations, Luxemburg and Liebknecht joined a small minority of socialist internationally, including Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin and American socialist agitator Eugene V. Debs, in calling for the transformation of the imperialist war into an international civil war of the working class against the bourgeoisie.
In 1918, revolution swept Germany. Mirroring the soviets, or workers’ councils, popularized by the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, workers’ councils were formed in Berlin and many other metropolises of Germany. To maintain order, Germany’s ruling class was forced to turn to the putrid SPD – now socialist in name only — as the only force capable of saving German capitalism. Supporters of Luxemburg’s Spartakusbund, which had joined with the Russian Bolsheviks in founding the Third (Communist) International, found themselves in a minority in calling for socialist revolution, but could not contain their revolutionary enthusiasm and sense of urgency as the bulwarks of capitalism appeared to crumble before their eyes. In the early days of 1919, Luxemburg found herself a reluctant leader of a mass workers’ insurrection which was quickly defeated. On January 15, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested at the orders of SPD leaders. Liebknecht was shot, allegedly while trying to escape. Luxemburg was shot in the head, and her body dumped in a river.
In the last days of her life, Rosa Luxemburg wrote the following words in the wake of the defeat of the January uprising: “’Order prevails in Berlin!’ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons,’ and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: ‘I was, I am, I shall be!’”
By Ted McTaggart