Luxemburg, Rosa

views updated Jun 11 2018

Luxemburg, Rosa 1870 or 1871-1919


Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish Marxist revolutionary as well as the most relevant figure of the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Together with Leo Jogiches (18671919), she was the leader of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland. Breaking with SPD for its support of World War I (19141918), with Karl Liebknecht (18711919) she founded the Spartacist League (Spartakusbund ), which became in 1918 the German Communist Party (KPD). Luxemburg was killed during the German Revolution of January 1919 by the paramilitary Freikorps, and by the order of the SPD chancellor Friedrich Ebert.

At Zurich University Luxemburg trained in law and economics. Indeed, many of her writings can be seen as an original and undogmatic reprise, critique, and development of Marxist critical political economy. By 1898 she was widely known for her trenchant and astute criticism of the mounting revisionism. In Social Reform or Revolution? (1899), the pamphlet she wrote against fellow SPD member Eduard Bernstein, Luxemburg strongly objected to the idea that capitalism was entering a phase of social and economic stabilization, with the end of class polarization and the attenuation of economic crises. Skeptical about the law of a tendential fall in the profit rate, she nevertheless defended collapse theory, but with too generic a reference to the lack of demand for commodities. She also stressed the essential link between money and value, justifying Marxs notion of abstract labor as a real abstraction that actually comes into being with the unity of production and circulation.

She refined her argument after 1907 when she started teaching economics at the SPD party training center in Berlin. While preparing her lectures (which were posthumously collected in Introduction to Political Economy, 1921) she stumbled upon a difficulty in Marx. Luxemburg stressed what she called the law of the tendential fall of the relative wagethat is, of the share in the new value added that goes to workersas the other side of relative surplus value extraction. In her view, though, the real wage may grow when the productive power of labor rises, the former always lagging behind the latter. Workers consumption is thus decreasing. Hence the question: Can capitalist investments fill the gap, and guarantee the smooth development of capitalist extended reproduction? In the Accumulation of Capital (1913) Luxemburg attacked Marxs schemes of reproduction for promoting the illusion that in a closed setting capitalism can go on as production for the sake of production, and only disproportional crises can occur. Imperialism is seen as the consequence of the need to find new markets in non-capitalist areas. In the end, collapse due to lack of effective demand was certain: To avoid slipping into barbarism, socialist revolution was historically necessary.

She was fiercely attacked by critics who hit some blind spots in her formulation (which was written in haste in a few months) but missed the core of her position, stated most clearly in the Anti-Critique (written in jail in 19161917). Capital must be analyzed first of all as a macro-monetary circuit. Therefore, the issue at stake is that capitalists cannot recover from monetary circulation more than they injected into it, advancing either constant or variable capital. From this theoretical stance, the realization problem opens to the problem of finance as fundamental in a monetary production economy. This does not mean that Luxemburgs view was correct: She discarded the distinction between financial and industrial capital, so her question could not have an answer. But her approach was more farsighted than her critics understood because she opened a new problematic (Bellofiore 2004).

Two interpreters who clearly perceived this were Joan Robinson (1951) and Michal Kalecki (1967). Robinson saw that the key issue in Luxemburg was that accumulation depends on the incentive to invest. Kalecki extended her position, showing that capitalism can find effective demand not only through net exports, but also through state deficit spending financed by the central. However, it must not be forgotten that in the last instance, crises erupt because of relative surplus value extraction: Although it induces a fall in the wage share, it also systematically upsets the conditions of equilibrium for capitalist reproduction, and then provokes disproportions and leads to a general glut. Realization crises are failures to sell products at prices that recoup expected profitability due to inadequate aggregate demand. They are rooted in the dynamics of exploitation within the capitalist labor processes where valorizationthat is, the production of surplus value starting from a given valueimmediately occurs.

Customarily, Luxemburgs position is labeled as determinist and under-consumptionist (which is clearly wrong), and her political perspective is condemned as spontaneist. A convincing rebuttal of this reading was put forward by Norman Geras (1976). What is relevant is Luxemburgs opposition to Lenin. As Rossana Rossanda succinctly states, Luxemburg never maintained that the masses could do without an organized vanguard which, for her, was identified with the party. However, the need for the latter was not derived from the absence of a political dimension of working class struggles as such, but from the objective fragmentation of these struggles, which a unifying strategy could alone overcome (1970, p. 224).

In recent decades, interest in Luxemburg has shifted from discussion about her political, social, and economic thought to her pacifism, her love for nature, and her anticipation of some traits of contemporary feminism (Nye 1994).

SEE ALSO Accumulation of Capital; Economic Crises; Feminism; Imperialism; Kalecki, Michal; Robinson, Joan; Socialism


Bellofiore, Riccardo. 2004. Like a Candle Burning at Both Ends: Rosa Luxemburg and the Critique of Political Economy. Research in Political Economy 21: 279297.

Geras, Norman. 1976. The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg. London:New Left Books.

Hudis, Peter, and Kevin B. Anderson. 2004. The Rosa Luxemburg Reader. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Luxemburg, Rosa. [1913] 2003. The Accumulation of Capital. London: Routledge.

Luxemburg, Rosa. [1921] 1972. The Accumulation of Capital:An Anti-Critique. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Nye, Andrea. 1994. The Thought of Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil, and Hannah Arendt. London: Routledge.

Robinson, Joan. 1951. Introduction. In The Accumulation of Capital. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Rossanda, Rossana. 1970. Class and Party. Socialist Register. 217231.

Riccardo Bellofiore

Luxemburg, Rosa

views updated May 21 2018


early years
germany and the revisionism debate
marxist theory
mass action and democracy

LUXEMBURG, ROSA (1871–1919), socialist activist.

Rosa Luxemburg was one of the great intellects and militants of pre-1914 European socialism. Her life's work spanned the Russian, Polish, and German socialist movements as well as the Second International, the worldwide organization of socialist parties. She made major contributions to Marxist theory and to debates on political strategy within the socialist movement. Marxist analysis and faith in the creative activism of workers were her unwavering guideposts.

early years

Luxemburg was born in 1871 into a middle-class Jewish family in Zamość, Poland, at the time a part of the Russian Empire. Her background, like her future politics, reflected the multiethnic and multilingual world of central and eastern Europe. The family was not religious. Her parents spoke Polish at home and read and admired German literature. Luxemburg herself would move easily in three languages, Russian, Polish, and German, and read and understood French and English.

When Luxemburg was still very young the family moved to Warsaw. Admitted to an elite girls' high school, she quickly became involved in the revolutionary movement. Warsaw and other parts of Poland were experiencing the early stages of

industrialization and the oppressive social conditions it created. Many Poles resented the discrimination and repression they suffered under imperial Russian control. The revolutionary movement was highly diverse; Luxemburg was finding her way to its most radical wing.

Already as a teenager Luxemburg had come to the attention of the police. Threatened with arrest, she fled in 1889 to Switzerland, a safe haven for socialists from all over Europe and especially for those from the Russian Empire. Switzerland was also pathbreaking in allowing women to enter the university. Luxemburg matriculated at the University of Zurich, where she studied law, political economy, and biology. She received a doctorate in 1897 with a dissertation called "Die industrielle Entwicklung Polens" (The industrial development of Poland).

Alongside her formal studies, Luxemburg read intensively in the works of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) and other socialist theoreticians. In Switzerland she began to write for socialist newspapers and quickly acquired a reputation for her sharp pen and radical ideas. She became a leading figure in the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL). In opposition to virtually every other political movement in Poland, the SDKPiL decisively opposed Polish and every other form of nationalism. That position, which placed the SDKPiL at odds with many other socialist parties as well, would remain a lodestar of Luxemburg's politics. But her ambitions were large, too great to be contained by the small Polish socialist movement.

germany and the revisionism debate

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the largest and best-organized socialist party in the world. It also claimed moral stature as the party of Marx and Engels. It occupied pride of place in the Socialist International. To have a decisive influence on the future of the socialist movement, Luxemburg knew that she had to participate in the German party.

In 1898 she moved to Germany and through an arranged marriage, obtained German citizenship. Her timing was auspicious. Eduard Bernstein, one of the leading figures of the SPD, had just published a number of articles that would unleash the "revisionism debate" among socialists. Bernstein argued that socialists had to update their Marxism. They had to realize that capitalist society was not dividing into two classes, a massive impoverished proletariat and a tiny group of wealthy capitalists. Instead, living standards in general were improving and the middle class was expanding exponentially. Socialists had to find a way to appeal to the middle class. They had to abandon the fire and brimstone of revolution and work through the electoral systems of bourgeois democracy. The end goal of socialism would come gradually through the daily work of the party and the extension of democracy.

Luxemburg reacted with fury. In a series of articles in the SPD press and in a short book, Sozial reform oder Revolution? (1899; Social Reform orRevolution), she attacked Bernstein for abandoning the principles of Marxism. She reaffirmed the Marxist fundamentals that capitalism was a system destined for collapse. It would be overthrown by the revolutionary action of the proletariat around the world, who would then install a socialist system. Luxemburg won the theoretical debate, but it was a pyrrhic victory. The SPD and many other socialist parties outside the Russian Empire were on a slow march to a gradual form of politics that more closely reflected Bernstein's position than her arguments.

marxist theory

Moreover, like many Marxists, Luxemburg would never be able to resolve intellectually the key theoretical issue concerning the collapse of capitalism: would the decisive blow come from the systemic contradictions of capitalism, or from the revolutionary action of the proletariat? (She would have responded that the very question is undialectical and therefore non-Marxist.) In her major theoretical work, Die Akkumulation des Kapitals (1913; The Accumulation of Capital), she argued that as capitalism came to encompass every region of the globe, it would lose the advantages of uneven development, that is, capital's constant search for the sites with the cheapest costs of labor and materials, which therefore engendered the greatest profit margins. The moment at which capital became truly global would also be the moment of its demise. Such a position could and did inspire a politics of passivity: socialists only needed to wait for that moment and then the new system would emerge. But Luxemburg was also a forceful advocate of decisive revolutionary action. She wrote and spoke about the need for the proletariat and the party to engage unceasingly the capitalist enemy—through strikes, demonstrations, rallies, and elections, and, if necessary, at the barricades in armed conflict. Theoretically, she could never resolve the tension between her understanding of the workings of capitalism as a system and her promotion of revolutionary activism.

mass action and democracy

The Russian Revolution of 1905 provided the opportunity for her to develop further her thoughts on socialist strategy. The socialist parties had been taken by surprise when workers set loose a strike wave that reached all the industrializing areas of the Russian Empire, including Poland. Workers demanded better wages and working conditions, but the strikes quickly escalated into overtly political affairs with calls for democratization. Ignoring the advice of many of her comrades, Luxemburg traveled to Warsaw and quickly plunged into a swirl of meetings and writings. Against more moderate socialists and nationalists of all stripes, she promoted the two major positions she had already staked out: internationalism and revolution. But by the time she arrived in Poland, the revolutionary movement was already on the ebb. She was caught and imprisoned (not for the first time), and only the most strenuous efforts of her family and friends secured her release.

During the Revolution, she wrote one of her most important works, the long essay, Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften (1906; Mass Strike, Party, and Unions). Luxemburg delivered a withering critique of the growth of bureaucracy within the SPD and the trade unions. She argued that to its officials, the party and unions as organizations had become more important than the goal of the revolutionary transformation of capitalism. She based her alternatives on her observations of Russian and Polish workers in 1905. They had launched the Revolution spontaneously. They had not waited for directives from shop stewards or party bosses. In Luxemburg's radical view, the party and the unions had become obstacles to revolutionary action. In the future, the SPD and the unions should follow the workers rather than the other way around. The role of the formal organizations of the labor movement should be to agitate and educate, and to help elevate the spontaneous activism of workers into revolutionary assaults on the existing system.

Luxemburg's views stimulated another great debate within the SPD and the International, but they were hardly embraced. Many leaders and mid-level functionaries had spent years building up the institutions of the labor movement, often at great personal sacrifice. The unions and the party were their proud creation. They viewed Luxemburg as a starry-eyed, irresponsible radical. Less charitably, they said among themselves that she was a female Polish-Jewish intellectual with no real experience of the working class. Those party and union officials who were themselves workers, at least by background, where far less inclined to idealize the spontaneous activism of their class comrades.

Luxemburg's emphasis on spontaneity led her into another great conflict, this time with Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924). Luxemburg and Lenin shared the commitment to revolutionary activism, but came to opposite strategic conclusions. While Luxemburg cherished spontaneity, Lenin idealized the revolutionary party. Left to their own devices, workers, according to Lenin, would never become revolutionaries. They needed the guiding hand of the party with its cadre of disciplined, professional revolutionaries. Luxemburg had attacked Lenin's views even before the Revolution of 1905 and the dispute between them continued. In 1918, while she languished in a German prison, she wrote a sharp-eyed critique of the Bolshevik Revolution. In all of these writings, filled with evocative prose, she argued for the importance of free speech within the party and society at large. Socialism was the fulfillment of democracy; it could not flourish without democratic procedures. Lenin's organizational fetishism, she suggested, threatened to undermine the very meaning of socialism.

These were prescient words, and her conflict with Lenin and the Bolsheviks has given her a well-deserved reputation as a democrat. She is admired by feminists and socialists around the world, who look to her ideas as an alternative to the repressive and dictatorial form of socialism that came to prevail in the communist world in the twentieth century. Her combination of political commitment with deep personal friendships and love relationships, notably with her fellow Polish revolutionary Leo Jogiches, is expressed eloquently in her letters and has won her flocks of admirers. Yet Luxemburg never squarely faced the inherent contradictions of her own politics. As a Marxist she was convinced that there existed a correct path to an inevitable socialist future. But what if people, and the proletariat in particular, chose a different path? What if other futures were possible? What sense does democracy make when the future is already known?

World War I brought great tragedies, personal and political, to Luxemburg. It also unleashed her revolutionary hopes and optimism, which were dashed by her brutal assassination in January 1919.

See alsoBebel, August; Germany; Kautsky, Karl; Labor Movements; Lenin, Vladimir; Russia; Socialism.


Primary Sources

Ettinger, Elzbieta, ed. and trans. Comrade and Lover: Rosa Luxemburg's Letter to Leo Jogiches. Cambridge, Mass., 1979.

Waters, Mary-Alice, ed. Rosa Luxemburg Speaks. New York, 1970.

Secondary Sources

Abraham, Richard. Rosa Luxemburg: A Life for the International. Oxford, U.K., 1989.

Nettl, Peter. Rosa Luxemburg. Abridged ed. Oxford, U.K., 1969.

Schorske, Carl E. German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism. Cambridge, Mass., 1955.

Weitz, Eric D. Creating German Communism, 1890–1990: From Popular Protests to Socialist State. Princeton, N.J., 1997.

Eric D. Weitz

Luxemburg, Rosa

views updated Jun 11 2018

Luxemburg, Rosa



Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919) was one of the founders of the Social Democratic party of Poland and Lithuania, the leader of the left wing of the Social Democratic party (SPD) in Germany, and a prominent Marxist economic theorist. She was born in Zamosc but spent her childhood and youth in Warsaw. She came from a family of Polish-speaking Jewish merchants, and her mother brought her up in a liberal atmosphere, instilling in her a love of classical German culture. She grew up in a period when the tsarist government was increasing its political and religious oppression and when socialist activity was beginning in Poland.

While still in high school Rosa Luxemburg became active in the socialist movement, and in 1889 she was forced to flee abroad. She entered the University of Zurich with the intention of studying natural sciences but soon shifted to political economy. In addition to the university program, she studied the works of Adam Smith, Ricardo, Rodbertus, and, above all, Marx. In her doctoral thesis, Die industrielle Entwicklung Polens (1898; “The Industrial Development of Poland”), she argued that the development of industrial capitalism in the Polish kingdom depended heavily on the Russian market and that the economy of the Polish kingdom would never be more than a part of the tsarist economy. The analysis in this book formed the basis upon which the Polish Social Democratic party built its political program.

In order to be able to take part in the German socialist movement, she acquired German citizenship through a fictitious marriage with a German emigrant. From 1897 until her death she lived, except for short intervals, in Berlin.

Immediately upon her arrival in Germany she joined Karl Kautsky in the fight against Eduard Bernstein and his revisionist followers. Bernstein’s thesis, “The movement is everything, the aim nothing,” was incompatible with her belief that the struggle for political power was a necessary aim of the socialist movement. Her essays criticizing Bernstein’s economic and political doctrines were collected in Reform or Revolution (1899).

In 1905 she returned to Warsaw under an assumed name to help the revolutionary movement there but was soon arrested. After her release from jail she went first to St. Petersburg and then to Finland, where she wrote the pamphlet Massenstreik, P artel und Gewerkschaften (1906; “General Strike, Party and Trade Unions”). The work contains a sociological analysis of the driving forces of social revolution and its mechanism—an analysis, on the one hand, of the role of the masses and, on the other hand, of the organization and role of the leaders. In this pamphlet she also developed the view that the general strike is the fundamental instrument in the struggle of the working class for power.

As the orthodox Marxists discussed their revolutionary experiences, particularly their experiences with political strikes, essential differences among them emerged. This led to a break between Luxemburg and Kautsky, which meant that the German Social Democratic party became divided into three groups: a right wing led by Bernstein, a center group led by Kautsky, and a left wing led by Luxemburg.

Beginning in 1907 she lectured at the Berlin school of the Social Democratic party. Both her earlier lectures on political economy and her later ones on economic history were published posthumously from her manuscripts, with the title Einführung in die Nationalökonomie (1925). Her most famous economic work, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), also grew out of these lectures.

The Accumulation of Capital may well be Luxemburg’s most important contribution to the social sciences. The book has as its main theme the conditions of economic growth under capitalism, and its original contribution lies, therefore, in the field of economic theory. In Luxemburg’s opinion, pure capitalism cannot create conditions adequate to maintain its own development. The main factor that gives capitalist production its dynamic power is the expansion toward noncapitalist areas, both underdeveloped countries and spheres of noncapitalist production within capitalist countries. This expansion comes about because capital accumulates, while at the same time demand within the capitalist society does not increase fast enough to absorb the increasing supply of goods.

During the imperialist phase of capitalism this difficulty is solved by the production of arms. The arms not only absorb domestic capital but also help create new markets in the colonies. The state’s customs and tax policies also play an important part in the economic development of capitalism, especially in the period of imperialism. Luxemburg saw free international trade as only an episode in the history of capitalism and criticized Marx for disregarding the historical conditions that affected the accumulation of capital; she charged Marx with considering historical conditions important only in relation to the birth of capitalism and exclusively with reference to private accumulation. Luxemburg believed instead that the relations between capitalism and its precapitalist surroundings constitute a source of tension and international conflict. These lead to a series of wars and social revolutions that in turn start the process of the decline of capitalism. In the history of Marxist economic theory Luxemburg’s work on the accumulation of capital has produced much theoretical and political polemics.

Initially, the reactions to The Accumulation of Capital were negative. Such theorists as Karl Kautsky, Otto Bauer, and Nikolai Bukharin not only rejected the major theory of the book but even questioned whether the problems investigated by Luxemburg were important ones. The first work in the literature of economics seriously to consider as well as to extend Luxemburg’s theory of accumulation was Fritz Sternberg’s Der Imperialismus (1926). Only with the Keynesian revolution was Luxemburg’s theory, that lack of purchasing power causes a breakdown in the capitalist system, rehabilitated.

Luxemburg was again imprisoned during World War I, this time for her antimilitary activities. She devoted the three years she spent in jail to theoretical and journalistic writing. She wrote a book answering the critics of The Accumulation of Capital, a brief work on the crisis of social democracy (known as the “Junius Pamphlet”; see Luxemburg 1916), and the unfinished manuscript from which the posthumously published Russian Revolution (see in 1904–1922) was drawn. The Russian Revolution is one of the most controversial works in socialist political literature, where it occupies a position similar to that of The Accumulation of Capital in economic literature. Luxemburg acclaimed the October Revolution as the most important result of World War I, but this did not prevent her from criticizing Bolshevik practice. Thus, she deplored the fact that the postrevolutionary political system was a dictatorship not of the masses, but over the masses. She was disappointed that the large land-holdings had been divided among the peasants, for she felt that this created a new and powerful class of proprietors, i.e., enemies of socialism. She also disapproved of Bolshevik policy toward nationalities.

Upon her release from prison at the end of 1918, Luxemburg immediately joined the German revolution. Late that year she and Karl Liebknecht together founded the German Communist party and wrote its program. They were both arrested early in 1919 and were both assassinated by the soldiers in whose custody they had been placed.

Tadeusz Kowalik

[For the historical context of Luxemburg’s work, see Economic THOUGHT, article onsocialist thought; Imperialism; Marxism; Socialism; and the biographies of Bernstein; Kautsky; Marx.]


(1894–1925) 1951 Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften. 2 vols. With a preface by Wilhelm Pieck. Berlin: Dietz.

1898 Die industrielle Entwicklung Polens: Inaugural-Dissertation. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

(1899) 1951 Reform or Revolution. With an introduction by Hector Abhayavardhan. Bombay: Modern India Publications. → First published as Sozialreform oder Revolution?

(1904–1922) 1961 The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? With an introduction by Bertram D. Wolfe. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press. → Two pamphlets, first published in German. Leninism or Marxism? was first published in 1904; Die russische Revolution was published posthumously in 1922, edited by P. Levi.

(1906) 1951 Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften. Volume 1, pages 157–257 in Rosa Luxemburg, Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften. Berlin: Dietz.

(1913) 1964 The Accumulation of Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press. → First published in German.

(1916) 1951 Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie (Junius-Broschüre). Volume 1, pages 258–399 in Rosa Luxemburg, Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften. Berlin: Dietz. → The 1916 edition was published under the pseudonym Junius.

1922–1928 Gesammelte Werke. Vols. 3, 4, and 6. Berlin: Vereinigung Internationaler Verlags-Anstalten. → Volumes 1, 2, and 5 were never published.

(1925) 1951 Einführung in die Nationalokonomie. Volume 1, pages 411–741 in Rosa Luxemburg, Ausgewdhlte Reden und Schriften. Berlin: Dietz.


Arendt, Hannah 1966 A Heroine of Revolution: [A Book Review of] Rosa Luxemburg, by J. P. Nettl. New York Review of Books 8, no. 5:21-27.

Bukharin, Nikolai I. (1926) 1927 Der Imperialismus und die Akkumulation des Kapitals. Berlin: Verlag fur Literatur und Politik. → First published as Imperialism i nakoplenie kapitala.

Cliff, Tony 1959 Rosa Luxemburg: A Study. International Socialism: Quarterly for Marxist Theory [1959]: no. 2-3.

FrÖlich, Paul (1939) 1940 Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. London: Gollancz. → First published in German.

Grossmann, Henryk 1929 Das Akkumulations- und Zusammenbruchsgesetz des kapitalistischen Systems (Zugleich eine Krisentheorie). Leipzig: Hirschfeld.

Laurat, Lucien 1930 L’accumulation du capital d’après Rosa Luxembourg, suivi d’un apergu sur la discussion du problème depuis la mort de Rosa Luxembourg. Paris: Rivière.

Lenin, Vladimir I. (1916) 1964 The Junius Pamphlet. Pages 305–319 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Volume 22: December 1915-July 1916. London : Lawrence & Wishart.

Nettl, John P. 1966 Rosa Luxemburg. 2 vols. Oxford Univ. Press.

Oelssner, Fred 1951 Rosa Luxemburg: Eine kritische biographische Skizze. Berlin: Dietz.

Sternberg, Fritz 1926 Der Imperialismus. Berlin: Malik.

Sternberg, Fritz 1929 Der Imperialismus und seine Kritiker. Berlin: Soziologische Verlagsanstalt.

Luxemburg, Rosa

views updated May 29 2018


LUXEMBURG, ROSA (1871–1919), German economist and revolutionary. Born into a family of merchants in Zamosc, Poland, Rosa Luxemburg joined the Polish revolutionary movement as a schoolgirl in Warsaw. As a consequence of the threat of imprisonment she was forced to leave the country at the age of 18 and immigrated to Switzerland. There she studied political economy and history at the University of Zurich, worked in the underground Socialist movement of Polish emigrants, and met her longtime partner and lifetime comrade Leo Jogiches. In the early 1890s she helped to found the Social Democratic Party of Poland and Lithuania which cooperated for a time with the Marxist Russian Social Democratic movement. Migrating to Germany in 1898, she obtained German citizenship through a formal marriage with a printer. She became active among Polish workers and joined the editorial staff of the Saechsische Arbeiter-Zeitung, the Leipziger Volkszeitung, and later the Vorwaerts, and was a regular contributor to the Neue Zeit. Rosa Luxemburg was a leading figure in the revolutionary left wing of the German Socialist movement. As a correspondent of the Vorwaerts she participated in the revolution of 1905–06 in Warsaw, was imprisoned, but escaped and resumed her political activity in Germany, devoting a large part of her attention to the general strike as a revolutionary weapon. She was active in both the Polish and the German Labor movements and was a prominent figure in the Socialist International. She opposed World War i as an imperialist enterprise and spent a long period in prison as a consequence. In 1916, together with Franz Mehring, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, and others she founded the "Spartakusgruppe," a revolutionary organization, which at the end of 1918 was transformed into the Spartakusbund and in the beginning of 1919 into the Communist Party of Germany (kpd). She was on friendly terms with Lenin but they disagreed on a number of issues. She was very critical of the Bolshevik reign of terror in the Soviet Union. With Karl Liebknecht she edited the Communist daily Die Rote Fahne from November 1918, and she was arrested with him in Berlin on January 15, 1919. They were brought to the Berlin Eden-Hotel, where both were tortured and murdered by army officers. Rosa Luxemburg's body was thrown into the Berlin Landwehrkanal and found only months later. On June 13, 1919, she was buried at the cemetery of Berlin-Friedrichsfelde, followed by a large funeral procession.

As an economist, Rosa Luxemburg is widely known for her theory of imperialism. She was convinced that in a pure capitalist society the inadequacy of the local market would lead to a search for markets in countries with more primitive methods of production. There would be a struggle for foreign markets, and imperialism would thus become the guiding principle of foreign policy. Although capitalism must automatically disappear with the exhaustion of external non-capitalist markets, it would collapse before reaching this limit, because expanding capitalism would produce profound social conflicts leading to a victorious proletarian revolution. She developed this theory in Die Akkumulation des Kapitals (1913). Of great interest are Rosa Luxemburg's views on nationalism. For her, Socialism and national self-determination were conflicting ideas. She opposed Poland's independence; her "fatherland" was the international working class, her aim the Socialist revolution. Although Rosa Luxemburg did not show any interest in Jewish matters or in a specifically Jewish labor movement, she was constantly attacked in antisemitic terms. Rosa Luxemburg's important publications include Die industrielle Entwicklung Polens (her doctoral thesis, 1898), Sozialreform oder Revolution (1899), Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften (1906), Die russische Revolution (ed. by Paul Levi, 1922, and by Ossip K. Flechtheim, 1963), Einführung in die Nationalökonomie (ed. by Paul Levi, 1925), and Politische Schriften (ed. by Ossip K. Flechtheim, 1966). Her Gesammelte Werke appearedin various editions from the 1920s on. Numerous collections of letters were published, among them Briefe aus dem Gefaengnis (1920), Briefe an Karl und Luise Kautsky (1923), Briefe an Freunde (ed. by B. Kautsky, 1950), Briefe an Leon Jogiches (1971), and Gesammelte Briefe (vol. 1–6, 1982–93).


J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, 2 vols. (Eng., 1966). Add. Bibliography: P. Froelich, Rosa Luxemburg (Eng., 1940); P. Peretz, in: Juden und juedische Aspekte in der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, 18481918 (1977); E. Silberner, in: Jahrbuch des Instituts fuer Deutsche Geschichte, 7 (1978), 299–337; O.K. Flechtheim, Rosa Luxemburg zur Einführung (1985); E. Ettinger, Rosa Luxemburg (Eng., 1986); R.S. Wistrich, in: A. Rapoport-Albert and S.J. Zipperstein (eds.), Jewish History, Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky (1988); K. von Soden (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg (1995); A. Laschitza, Im Lebens rausch, trotz alledem. Rosa Luxemburg (1996).

[Mirjam Triendl (2nd ed.)]

Rosa Luxemburg

views updated May 14 2018

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919) was a Polish revolutionary and theorist. She led the German workers' uprisings which followed World War I and is considered one of the pioneer activists and foremost martyrs of the international Communist movement.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamo in Russian Poland and brought up in Warsaw. She was the daughter of a middle-class, Polish-speaking Jewish merchant. Dainty, almost tiny, she walked with a limp as the result of a childhood disease.

From her earliest years Rosa possessed "one of the most penetrating analytical minds of her age." In a period when the czarist government was increasing its religious and political oppression in Poland, especially of the Jews, she gained admission to the best girls' high school in Warsaw, usually reserved for Russians. There she joined a revolutionary cell and began a lifelong association with the socialist movement. When she was 18, her activities came to the attention of the Russian secret police, and she fled to Switzerland to avoid arrest.

Luxemburg continued her interests in socialist and revolutionary activities there. She earned a doctorate of laws at the University of Zurich in 1898. Her thesis on industrial development in Poland later served as a basis for the program of the Social Democratic party of Poland. She decided to go to Germany and attach herself to the large, vital, and well-organized Social Democratic party (SPD). In Berlin she obtained German citizenship through a fictitious marriage and quickly became one of the most effective, respected, and even beloved leaders of the international socialist movement.

With Karl Kautsky, Luxemburg headed the revisionist wing of the SPD in opposition to its major theorist, Eduard Bernstein. She wrote articles in socialist newspapers increasingly critical of Bernstein's political and economic theories. Gradually, in a series of works published before the outbreak of World War I, she drifted apart from Kautsky and established herself as the acknowledged leader of the left, or revolutionary, wing of the SPD. She gave new life and theoretical form to the revolutionary goals of the party in a period when most factions were oriented toward parliamentary reform.

During World War I Luxemburg, now dubbed the "Red Rose" by police, was imprisoned for her revolutionary activities. Released for a short time in 1916, she helped to found the revolutionary Spartacus Union with Karl Liebknecht. When she again emerged from prison, in 1918, dissatisfied with the failure to effect a thoroughgoing socialist revolution in Germany, she helped to found the German Communist party (KPD) and its newspaper, the Rote Fahne, and drafted its program. She and Liebknecht urged revolution against the Ebert government, which came to power after the armistice, and were largely responsible for the wave of strikes, riots, and violence which swept across Germany from the end of 1918 until June 1919.

In January 1919 one of the most violent outbreaks occurred in Berlin. Luxemburg and Liebknecht, in spite of their doubts as to the timing, supported the Berlin workers in their call for revolution. The troops that were called in acted with extreme violence and brutality, crushing the revolt in a few days. On January 15 Liebknecht and Luxemburg were caught and murdered by the soldiers who held them prisoner.

Further Reading

A good study of Rosa Luxemburg in English is the abridged version of J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (1966). Nettl presents an exhaustive, scholarly analysis of her life, work, and influence. A shorter but older and more partisan treatment is Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (trans. 1940). Luxemburg is discussed in the personal account of Bertram D. Wolfe, Strange Communists I Have Known (1965).

Additional Sources

Abraham, Richard, Rosa Luxemburg: a life for the International, Oxford England; New York: Berg; New York: Distributed excusively in the US and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Bronner, Stephen Eric, A revolutionary for our times: Rosa Luxemburg, London: Pluto Press, 1981; New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Ettinger, Elzbieta, Rosa Luxemburg: a life, Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Luxemburg, Rosa, Comrade and lover: Rosa Luxemburg's Letters to Leo Jogiches, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1979.

Nettl, J. P., Rosa Luxemburg, New York: Schocken Books: Distributed by Pantheon Books, 1989, 1969.

Shepardson, Donald E., Rosa Luxemburg and the noble dream, New York: P. Lang, 1995. □

Luxemburg, Rosa

views updated May 14 2018

Luxemburg, Rosa (1871–1919) Though born in Poland, Luxemburg is best known as a leading theorist and political leader in the German working-class movement. She vigorously opposed the revisionist current in the German Social Democratic Party, and was imprisoned for her opposition to the First World War. After the war she supported the Russian Revolution, but was sharply critical of the Bolshevik suppression of popular democracy. Her major theoretical work, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), argued that imperialist expansion was necessitated by capitalism's dependence on a non-capitalist ‘third market’. The global triumph of capitalist expansion would also mark its final breakdown. Luxemburg played a leading part in the revolutionary upheaval in Germany which followed the end of the war. She was arrested by army officers in Berlin and clubbed to death by soldiers on her way to prison.

Luxemburg, Rosa

views updated May 18 2018

Luxemburg, Rosa (1871–1919) German socialist leader, b. Poland. She was an active revolutionary and anti-nationalist in Russian Poland before acquiring German citizenship by marriage. She founded the radical left-wing Spartacist League in 1916 with Karl Liebknecht. Both she and Liebknecht are thought to have been murdered while under arrest in 1919.

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