Luxemburg, Rosa (1870–1919)

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Luxemburg, Rosa (1870–1919)

Polish-German economist and socialist political theoretician whose work contributed significantly to Marxist thought. Name variations: Rozalia or RóżaLuxsenburg. Pronunciation: Ro-za LOOKS-emboorg. Born Rozalia Luxsenburg on March 5, 1870, at Zamosc, Russian Poland; murdered on January 15, 1919, in Berlin, Germany; fifth child of Line (Loewenstein) Luxsenburg and Elias (or Eduard) Luxsenburg (a timber merchant); attended the Second Women's Gymnasium, Warsaw, Russian Poland and the University of Zurich, Switzerland; graduated Doctor of Philosophy in economics, 1897; married Gustav Lübeck, in 1898 (divorced); no children.

Selected publications:

Social Reform or Revolution (1900); Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy (1904); The Mass Strike, the Political Parties and Trade Unions (1906); The Accumulation of Capital (1913); The Crisis of Social-Democracy (1916); What Does the Spartacus League Want? (1919); The Russian Revolution (1921).

When the Bolshevik revolution broke out in Russia in October 1917, many socialists hoped that this event was the forerunner of a more extensive revolutionary upheaval throughout Europe. Nowhere were the hopes and expectations of such an event more eagerly anticipated than in Germany. Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) constituted the largest socialist party anywhere in the world and was the home of some of the most important revolutionary theoreticians of the era. Among them, one in particular stood out for the depth of her intellectual vision and radical commitment—Rosa Luxemburg.

She was born Rosa Luxsenburg in 1870, into a middle-class Jewish family in Zamosc, Poland, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Her father Eduard Luxsenburg was a timber merchant whose business fortunes fluctuated with the ups and downs of the local economy. Although he took no interest in political questions, Eduard was actively involved in a variety of local cultural and, in particular, educational issues.

Rosa's mother Line Luxsenburg was a reserved woman whose principal passion was classical Polish and German literature (a trait which she would pass on to her daughter). Both parents' interest in cultural matters was indicative of their refusal to identify closely with the narrow parochial interests of the Jewish community in Zamosc. Both Eduard and Line made a conscious attempt to assimilate themselves and their children into the broader, more cosmopolitan environment of Polish society.

There is little to suggest that the Luxsenburgs were a particularly close family. Later in life, Rosa would regret the lack of intimacy between her parents and their children. However, she herself would make little effort to regularly correspond with her family and, as she often complained to her friends, found her infrequent visits home tiresome.

For business reasons, Eduard moved his family to Warsaw in 1873. Shortly afterwards, the three-year-old Rosa was discovered to have a disease of the hip which was then wrongly diagnosed as tuberculosis. Her doctor recommended that the leg be placed in a cast and that she be confined to bed. After 12 months, Luxemburg was released from the cast only to discover that normal growth in the affected leg had been retarded. She was left with a permanent and pronounced limp which would continue to cause periodic pain throughout her life.

In 1884, Luxemburg was enrolled in the Second Women's Gymnasium, one of the top schools for girls in Warsaw. Entry into this institution was not easy for Rosa. First, she had to

demonstrate a knowledge of what was for her a foreign language, Russian (the medium of instruction). Moreover, due to a government restriction on the number of Jewish students who could attend the gymnasium, she was required to attain a higher score than other students on the entrance exam. Despite these obstructions, Luxemburg was admitted and proved an able pupil, excelling particularly in mathematics and languages. She perfected her Russian and became fluent in Latin and French (later in life she also acquired a reading command of Italian, English, and Dutch).

While still at school, Luxemburg began to associate with the political organization Proletariat II, one of the first quasi-Marxist groups in the Russian Empire. By 1887, she was actively involved in underground discussion meetings and the illegal distribution of socialist propaganda. Although these activities were largely harmless, they proved a constant source of annoyance to the authorities. As a result, when Luxemburg came to graduate later that same year, she was denied the gold medal of achievement to which her high grades entitled her.

She was the sharp sword, the living flame of the revolution.

—Clara Zetkin

Following graduation, Luxemburg worked for a short time as a governess, but her real desire was to continue her academic studies. At that time, however, women were not accepted as students at any institute of higher learning in Poland. Consequently, Luxemburg matriculated at Zurich University in Switzerland, a school well known for its liberal policies regarding women students as well as for being an important political center for Eastern European radicals. When Rosa first registered at Zurich in 1890, she decided to adopt a more Germanized version of her name "Luxsenburg" and signed herself as "Luxemburg." She spent her initial two years at university studying natural science and mathematics before transferring her interests to economics, philosophy and law.

Shortly after arriving in Switzerland, Luxemburg met Leo Jogiches, a professed Marxist three years her senior who came from Vilna (now Vilnius in Lithuania). Jogiches' revolutionary activities as a journalist and strike organizer had been well known in Vilna, particularly to the tsar's secret police, the Okhrana. When the latter issued a warrant for his arrest (ostensibly on the grounds that he had evaded his military service), Jogiches had escaped to Zurich. There, he and Luxemburg became lovers.

In 1892, Luxemburg and Jogiches were among the co-founders of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). Much to their disgust, however, the PPS was soon taken over by a faction which advocated the cause of Polish national independence. This was unacceptable to the couple, because they believed that the political struggle for national independence only served to distract the working class from its principal goal, the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. Accordingly, in 1893, Rosa, Leo and several other leading Marxists made plans to found a genuinely radical party which would have as its goal the creation of a socialist society in Poland. After numerous difficulties and false starts, the Social-Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) was founded in 1898. This organization survived until 1918, when it merged with other left-wing groups to form the Polish Communist Party.

During the years leading up to the creation of the SDKPiL, Luxemburg became increasingly active as a socialist theoretician and served as the editor of the influential journal Sprawa Robotnicza (The Workers' Cause). She also worked on her doctoral thesis (an account of the emergence and development of Polish industry) and spent some time in Paris gathering research material. In addition, Luxemburg became increasingly involved in the activities of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), becoming a regular contributor to such party newspapers as Die Neue Zeit.

By the time her doctoral dissertation was accepted in 1897, Luxemburg had decided to move to Germany, then the leading center of radical political activity. There was, however, an important obstacle in the path of such a move. As a Russian citizen, she stood in constant danger of being expelled from Germany if her political activities proved unacceptable to the authorities. What she required was German citizenship. To this end (and with Leo's full approval), in 1898 Luxemburg entered a marriage of convenience with Gustav Lübeck, the son of a close friend. She and Lübeck parted immediately after the ceremony and, following some delay in receiving the necessary citizenship papers, were eventually divorced.

Initially, Luxemburg faced another, potentially more serious, obstacle once she arrived in Germany. As a young female Polish immigrant, she was not taken seriously by the senior, male-dominated echelons of the SPD leadership. Soon, however, her keen intelligence as a theoretician and her evident abilities as a public speaker brought Luxemburg to the attention of such key party leaders as August Bebel and Karl Kautsky.

In 1898, Luxemburg scored her first major success at the SPD congress held at Stuttgart. It was there that she launched her famous attack on the "reformist" faction within the party and, in particular, on its leading delegate, Eduard Bernstein. The latter had argued that recent social and economic improvements in the status of workers in Germany had now dispensed with the need for a class struggle to bring about a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. Rather, Bernstein suggested, socialist aims could be fully attained through a series of gradual, legislative reforms in the national Parliament. For her part, Luxemburg denounced this tactic as playing into the hands of the ruling class and stridently reaffirmed the necessity of the revolutionary struggle.

Over the next few years, Luxemburg was deeply involved in propaganda work on behalf of the SPD. She embarked on an exhaustive series of speaking tours which were concentrated mainly in the eastern areas of the German empire and included large numbers of workers of Polish origin. This demanding schedule was augmented by her extensive journalistic activities on behalf of the SPD press and her editorship of a variety of Polish journals, such as the Gazeta Ludowa (People's Gazette), Przeglad Socjaldemokratyczny (Social-Democratic Review), and Czerwony Sztandar (Red Flag).

In 1904, Luxemburg attended an international socialist congress in Amsterdam at which she gave a speech attacking the autocratic German emperor, Wilhelm II. As a result, on her return to Germany, she was arrested by the authorities and sentenced to three months in the Zwickau prison in Berlin. Her time in jail, however, could not be considered onerous. She was permitted generous access to newspapers and books, and her friends could even supply her with meals from a local restaurant.

More significantly, it was during this period of imprisonment that Luxemburg wrote the Organizational Questions of Russian Social-Democracy.

This text (along with the slightly later The Mass Strike, the Political Parties and Trade Unions) is highly significant because it is here that she launched her most telling criticisms of the centralizing and authoritarian tendencies of V.I. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. Throughout her life, Luxemburg consistently rejected the Leninist strategy which viewed a minority "vanguard" party as the inaugurator and leader of the revolutionary process. Rather, she believed that, if socialism were to be achieved, it could only be the result of a spontaneous movement on the part of the vast majority of the working class itself.

Following the outbreak of revolution in Russia in 1905, Luxemburg and Jogiches traveled to Warsaw in order to participate in events firsthand. There, they engaged in a variety of agitational activities but were soon arrested and charged with conspiring to overthrow the Russian empire. Before the trial could take place, however, Luxemburg fell ill and was released from prison. Immediately on her return to Berlin, she was arrested by the German authorities (this time on a charge of incitement) and imprisoned for two months.

In 1907, Luxemburg's position as one of the SPD's leading theoreticians was further recognized by her appointment in economics at the party's recently founded institute of further education. Although initially hesitant about accepting this position, she quickly recognized the important opening this appointment offered. Not only did it afford her a level of financial security which she had previously lacked but, moreover, it granted her an opportunity to work in a dynamic intellectual environment in which she could hope to develop her own theoretical interests.

Despite her growing public stature within the ranks of the socialist movement, Luxemburg found herself becoming increasingly isolated in her private life. Her intimate relationship with Leo Jogiches ended, although they continued as friends and intellectual collaborators. She then embarked on a number of affairs, invariably with younger men, none of which provided the personal warmth and assurance she so ardently desired. The most passionate of these affairs (with Costa Zetkin, the son of her close friend and fellow socialist, Clara Zetkin ) ended when Luxemburg realized that she was acting more like a mother figure than a lover.

In 1913, Luxemburg published what is widely regarded as her most important theoretical work, The Accumulation of Capital. This difficult and demanding book contained one of the first sustained analyses of the role of capital in the Third World. It carefully scrutinized the function of imperialist and colonialist policies in maintaining the capitalist system in the industrial heartlands of Western Europe and North America. The subject of much contemporary debate and criticism, The Accumulation of Capital remains one of the most notable and profound works in the Marxist canon.

Like many other socialists of this period, Luxemburg became increasingly concerned about the looming threat of war in Europe. Her speaking tours were almost entirely devoted to denouncing militarism and war as "barbaric, deeply immoral, [and] reactionary." As a result of these speeches, Luxemburg was arrested in February 1914. She was tried on a charge of sedition and sentenced to one year in prison, although she was subsequently released pending an appeal.

The SPD's decision, in July 1914, to support the German war effort came as a great disappointment to both Luxemburg and others on the radical left. She immediately threw herself into the pacifist movement but this engagement was cut short when her pending appeal was denied. Luxemburg served her sentence in the Barnimstrasse Women's Prison in Berlin where, once again, conditions were relatively pleasant. She resumed her study of botany (an interest ever since university) and was allowed to continue to write. She issued several replies to critics of The Accumulation of Capital and in The Crisis of Social-Democracy (1916) launched a forceful attack on the SPD leadership for its capitulation to militarism. She prophetically warned that the current conflict was laying the conditions not only for the defeat of socialism in Germany, but for future wars in Europe which would herald the beginning of a new era of "barbarism."

By the time of her release in February 1916, radical opposition to the SPD had gathered around the newly established International Group (also known as the Spartacus League, in reference to the 1st century bce Greek slave and hero who led a rebellion against the Romans). Co-founded by Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, son of the SPD party chief Wilhelm Liebknecht, the League hoped to end the world war by fomenting revolution in Germany. Due to the strong feelings of German nationalism and patriotism engendered by the war, however, Luxemburg and Liebknecht found far fewer supporters than they had anticipated. On the first of May, this group organized a large antiwar demonstration in Berlin which was closely monitored by the police. Shortly afterwards, Luxem-burg was designated a "danger to the safety of the Reich" and placed in "protective custody." In effect, this meant that she was to be held in prison indefinitely without charge. She was initially placed in solitary confinement in a darkened cell (during which time, it is said, her hair turned completely gray), although later her conditions were improved. Nevertheless, she suffered from severe depression and her friends were worried that she might attempt suicide.

The one bright moment of her imprisonment came with the news of the outbreak of revolution in Russia in February 1917. By the end of the year, however, her hopes were largely dashed when it became clear that the second Bolshevik revolution in October had failed to follow through with its socialist intentions. Although Luxemburg had known Lenin personally for many years, she bitterly denounced the lack of political democracy and personal freedom which was countenanced by the Bolshevik Party. These criticisms did not become widely known until the posthumous publication of her book The Russian Revolution in 1921. By that time, however, all organized opposition to the Bolsheviks had been suppressed, and her warnings about the future course of the revolution were all but ignored.

Following Germany's military defeat at the end of 1918, the revolutionary momentum in the country gathered pace. When Wilhelm II abdicated early in November, a new government under SPD control came to power. Much to the alarm of the SPD leadership, however, many workers and demobilized soldiers were not satisfied with the reformist stance adopted by the new regime. Instead, they loudly demanded the creation of workers' and soldiers' soviets as a first step towards the revolutionary reconstitution of society as a whole.

When Luxemburg returned to Berlin on November 10, 1918, the situation in the streets was fluid and uncertain. She immediately assumed editorship of Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) which, in the next few weeks, roundly denounced the new government and called for the satisfaction of the workers' and soldiers' demands. At the end of December, a special congress was held during which the Spartacus

League founded the German Communist Party (KPD). Luxemburg delivered the keynote address at this congress (known as What Does the Spartacus League Want?) in which she laid out the new party's revolutionary manifesto. This was to be her last public appearance.

Luxemburg was more aware than were many of her communist colleagues of the powerful position enjoyed by the SPD (and their new right-wing allies). Nonetheless, the KPD leadership decided to initiate an armed uprising in the hope that this action would spark a widespread working-class revolt. On January 10, 1919, their woefully ill-organized revolution began in Berlin. The final outcome was never seriously in doubt and, after three days of street fighting, was completely crushed by army units and assorted right-wing militias.

In the days that followed, the SPD government offered a substantial reward for the capture of "Red Rosa" whom it had now come to perceive as its most dangerous enemy. When she was apprehended on January 15, she was taken to the Hotel Eden in Berlin and subjected to a brutal interrogation. After several hours, Luxemburg was led from the hotel and, just outside the main door, knocked unconscious by a blow from a rifle butt. She was then placed in a car and taken away. The car had only traveled a few yards, however, before the officer in command, Lieutenant Vogel, drew his pistol and shot Rosa Luxemburg in the head.

"Luxemburg's causes failed; her vision was faulty," wrote Lamar Cecil. "But her intelligence, her forcefulness, her absorption in the cause of improving the world, her insistence that socialism have a human face give her today a reputation, and a relevance, that her socialist rivals, more famous and more successful in their own time, no longer enjoy."


Abraham, Richard. Rosa Luxemburg: A Life for the International. NY: Berg, 1989.

Cecil, Lamar. "Rosa Luxemburg," in Historic World Leaders. Edited by Anne Commire. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Co., 1994.

Ettinger, Elzbieta. Rosa Luxemburg: A Life. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1986.

Luxemburg, Rosa. Comrade and Lover: Rosa Luxemburg's Letters to Leo Jogiches. Edited by Elzbieta Ettinger. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1981.

——. Selected Political Writings. Edited by Dick Howard. NY: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Nettl, J.P. Rosa Luxemburg. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

suggested reading:

Bronner, Stephen E. Rosa Luxemburg: Revolutionary for Our Times. 1987.

——, ed. The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, 1979.

Flechtheim, Ossip K., ed. Rosa Luxemburg: Politische Schriften. 3 vols. 1966–68.

Frolich, Paul. Rosa Luxemburg, Her Life and Work, 1940.

Shorske, Carl. German Social Democracy. NY: John Wiley and Sons, 1955.

related media:

Rosa Luxemburg (film), directed by Margarethe Von Trotta , starring Barbara Sukowa , Artificial Eye, 1987.

Dave Baxter , Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada