Luxemburg on the fringes of the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart, 1907.
Rosa Luxemburg lived from 1871 to 1919. Today she is remembered as a poetic letter-writer and a politically radical revolutionary. People often become aware of her through the story of her violent death, meaning that her work and her life are forgotten. Surrounded by a world defined by clericalism, patriarchy, militarism, nationalism and bigotry, she made numerous decisions that where unusual for her time: at age 17 she travelled to Switzerland; at 22 she founded a political party; at 27 she completed a doctorate and chose to live in Berlin rather than in Paris, the capital of enlightened Europe; at 28 she became chief editor of a periodical for the first time; at 33 she was living in a prison cell, not for the last time; during the same year she openly criticized Lenin and the Bolsheviks; when she was 47, her corpse was thrown into Berlin’s Landwehrkanal.
1An emigrant at 17University, definitely—Luxemburg moves to Zurich
Luxemburg’s origins lay in a cultured middle class that, although it was not wealthy, not only valued education and culture but lived them. Born in 1871 in the small Renaissance town of Zamość, in what is now Poland’s south-east, her family moved to Warsaw just two years later. Luxemburg passed her school-leaving examinations with a distinction. Her parents’ marriage plans for their daughter failed owing to an insufficient dowry. In 1888, dreaming of university, Luxemburg—still more a girl than a woman—received permission both from her parents and the tsarist authorities to emigrate to Switzerland—a step that today would be described as feminist.
2Not zoology after allLuxemburg is drawn to politics
Zurich. In the last third of the 19th century, the immigration of students from Eastern Europe to Zurich produced an anti-capitalist parallel society lodged in the city’s unheated garrets. Unlike many of her fellow students, particularly the Russian and Polish ones, Luxemburg was not an exile but had migrated voluntarily. She was thus at home in both of Zurich’s social worlds. Initially she studied zoology, but after three years she switched—and not only to the social sciences. First, she fell for a man, and then for politics. In 1893, together with her lover Leo Jogiches and two further friends, Julian Marchlewski and Adolf Warski, she founded the Polish social democratic party. In 1905, shortly before she and Jogiches split up, she wrote to him: “…and you became hateful to me as the one who always kept me welded to this accursed politics.”
1 Rosa Luxemburg, letter to Leo Jogiches, 20 October 1905, in Gesammelte Briefe, vol. 2, 3rd edition, Berlin 1999, p. 209. English translation in The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annelies Laschitza, London, 2011.
3Rosa Luxemburg takes to the European stageThe decision to voice dissent
After defending her dissertation, Luxemburg moved to Berlin in 1898 and put herself at the service of the SPD to assist its agitation in Prussian-occupied Poland. In this way, she also hoped for more success in influencing developments in Russian-occupied regions of the country. But within a few months, she was unintentionally and unexpectedly catapulted onto the stage of the German and European social democratic movement: in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution? (1899), she openly opposed Eduard Bernstein’s attempt at a revision of Marx’s views. In so doing, the young Luxemburg had started a controversy with one of the highest authorities of the left: Bernstein was the executor of the literary estates of Marx and Engels. Two years earlier, Luxemburg had needed the help of Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx Aveling, in order to be at all admitted, along with her party, to the congress of the Socialist International. Now, at 28 years of age, she had gone from being a young Jew in a Zurich student’s lodgings to becoming a well-known European personality—though Luxemburg always had more foes than friends. She put her convictions before any loyalty to a group.
4Clarity no matter whatThe decision not to let oneself be silenced
Ferdinand Lassalle, founder of the independent German workers’ movement, had declared that the most revolutionary deed was “always to say clearly what is.” That is what Luxemburg always did, from her entry into politics onward—whether as a journalist, a speaker, or whenever she had to take responsibility for her actions in front of a court. All told, Luxemburg spent four of her 48 years in prison, the first time in Zwickau in 1904, for lèse-majesté. She subsequently went to prison on three occasions: in Warsaw in 1906, for her participation in the Russian Revolution; 1907 saw her first spell in the women’s prison in Barnimstrasse in Berlin, for “provoking violence”; in 1915—for a year—Barnimstrasse again, for inciting disobedience; from 1916—until 9 November 1918—in the police prison at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, then again in Barnimstrasse, plus Fortress Wronke near Posen, and during 1917 in Breslau, for continuing with her work against militarism. Nonetheless, Luxemburg did not shy away from saying what she considered to be right.
5No more little cakes in BerlinThe decision to join a revolution
Breaking out in St. Petersburg in January 1905, the Russian Revolution quickly spread throughout the empire, including to the industrialized parts of Russian-occupied Poland. In reports published almost daily, Luxemburg, working in Berlin as chief editor of the SPD’s major newspaper Vorwärts, sought to make the significance of this revolution palpable to German social democrats—with little to no success. At the end of December 1905, she had had enough, and swapped a position that was as well paid as it was safe for illegality in Warsaw. On 4 March 1906, a day before her 35th birthday, Luxemburg was arrested together with her partner, Leo Jogiches. She was held in custody until mid-July, among other places in the dreaded Tenth Pavilion of the Warsaw Citadel, in which “politicals” were kept in detention.
6For the revolution, but against terror and coups d’étatHer defining rejection of every totalitarian development
Following her release from Warsaw prison, Luxemburg went underground for a month and a half in Finland, assuming the name Felcia Budilowitsch (“Happily Reawakened [Into Life]”). Finland was under Russian occupation too, but was being governed in a decidedly more liberal way. From here she not only made repeated incognito trips to visit her comrades Leon Trotsky, Alexander Parvus, and Leo Deutsch in a St. Petersburg prison, but over several weeks she also discussed the defeated revolution with Lenin and his circle, who had also fled to Finland. It then became clear: they agreed on the issue of the inevitability of a revolution, but it was over the how—with or without terror—that they differed. Luxemburg had taken from the revolution her experience of the political mass strikes that it had successfully employed—a tactic for which she also intended to advocate in Germany as a means to the creation of a republic.
7LiberationThe decision to live and love in freedom
Luxemburg’s relationship with Leo Jogiches had already broken down before the Russian Revolution of 1905/06. After her return from Russian prisons, Luxemburg ended her first great love affair, which had become a torment. A major drama followed: Jogiches’ announcement that he would kill Luxemburg’s new lover Kostja Zetkin, Luxemburg, and himself was taken so seriously that she acquired a revolver. And a new chapter in Luxemburg’s life began. Now she grew settled in the Berlin she had once so disliked—with new friends and also lovers. She continued to work “like one possessed”. She wrote numerous articles for newspapers in several languages, corresponded across a wide European network, attended party conventions and congresses, and accepted invitations to nationwide lecture tours. For Luxemburg, political action presupposed political education. Starting in 1907, she took on a teaching assignment in political economy at the SPD party school for six months each winter, and with the salary (3,000 Reichsmarks per year) was now better able to get by financially. The work energized her. From it grew her two main economic works, Introduction to Political Economy and The Accumulation of Capital—which still today remain inspiring attempts to apply Marxian thinking beyond Marx.
“The time when I was writing the [first] Accumulation of Capital belongs to the happiest of my life. Really I was living as though in euphoria, ‘on a high,’ saw and heard nothing else, day or night, but this one question, which unfolded before me so beautifully, and I don’t know what to say about which gave me the greater pleasure: the process of thinking, when I was turning a complicated problem over in my mind, pacing slowly back and forth through the room, […] or the process of giving shape and literary form to my thoughts with pen in hand.”
2 Rosa Luxemburg, letter to Hans Diefenbach, 12 May 1917, in Gesammelte Briefe, vol. 5, Berlin 1984, p. 234. English translation in The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annelies Laschitza, London, 2011.
8Rather prison than suing for a pardonThe decision to go it alone against (nearly) everybody
Besides the struggle for equal universal suffrage in the German Länder and advocacy for a republic (a position that Luxemburg was almost alone in espousing), the struggle against the militarization of society and the impending world war became increasingly urgent. Like Karl Liebknecht, Luxemburg warned against both from early on. But with her attempt to add the mass strike to the tactical repertoire of the German social democracy movement, she experienced a political defeat.
After the Russian Revolution of 1905/06, Polish antisemites accused Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches of being Jews who had incited good Christian Polish workers to make revolution before themselves absconding abroad. Not least for this reason, following her 1914 conviction for “incitement to disobedience”, Luxemburg refused the recommendation of her friends that she emigrate from Germany. She also refused the prospect of a pardon by the Kaiser. At the end of July 1914, World War I began. Shortly before, the Socialist International—on which Luxemburg had pinned so many hopes—had collapsed with hardly a whimper. On 18 February 1915, Luxemburg moved into a cell in Berlin’s Barnimstrasse women’s prison for a year.
9UnbowedThe decision not to give up at any price
After being released from prison in February 1916, Luxemburg continued her struggle against militarism. With the group “Internationale”—soon to be known only as the Spartacus group, so called after its illegal newspaper, Spartacus—a new circle formed around her, beginning on 1 January 1916. Luxemburg had written its programmatic theses. Less than six months after her release, the order was given that she be taken into “protective” military custody. Suffering in any case from stomach problems, she was accustomed to treating her depression herself. Now, under trying circumstances, which became even more so in Breslau prison after autumn 1917, the task was not only to keep herself balanced, but also to boost the morale of her friends on the outside. The results can be read in the slim volume Briefe aus dem Gefängnis (Letters from Prison): an example of world literature created almost incidentally. Another piece of world literature emerged in September and October 1918—also in prison: Luxemburg’s fragment on “The Russian Revolution”. Published in 1921/22, it remains until this day a canonical example of the socialist critique of the Bolsheviks.
10All power to the councilsThe decision to carry a political revolution forward into a social revolution
The Russian Revolution of February 1917 heralded upheavals that, in the autumn of 1918, also affected Germany. The November Revolution saw the prison gates open for Luxemburg. In Berlin, she took over the editorship of the newspaper Rote Fahne (»Red The Russian Revolution of February 1917 heralded upheavals that, in the autumn of 1918, also affected Germany. The November Revolution saw the prison gates open for Luxemburg. In Berlin, she took over the editorship of the newspaper Rote Fahne (“Red Flag”). As the SPD leadership placed itself at the head of the revolution—with the aim of stalling it—Luxemburg vehemently opposed the leadership of her former party. The Communist Party, founded at the turn of 1918/19, adopted Luxemburg’s programme, which she had written for the Spartacus League. Her goal was to make the November Revolution in Germany an irreversible political transformation and, in the long term, to drive it forward into a social transformation. However, she was hardly able to achieve anything in the remaining 68 days of her life. The first inflammatory posters appeared as early as December 1918, and soon the atmosphere of a pogrom set in. On 15 January 1919, German officers murdered Rosa Luxemburg. Her body was not found until 31 May.
The last 68 days of Rosa Luxemburg’s life are traced in detail in this chronicle.