Lessons from the Life of Rosa Luxemburg
Hannah Arendt famously described Rahel Varnhagen, her literary subject, as "her closest friend, though she had been dead [some] hundred years”. For six years, as I researched and prepared my biography of her, I have lived intimately with Rosa Luxemburg, and feel much the same way.
Over the course of writing her life story and introducing her work to new readers, I have been struck by the radical differences between the world Rosa inhabited and the one in which we live today. She did not live to see fascism, she did not see the collapse of imperialism as she knew it and the rise of neocolonialism and neo-imperialism. She did not live to see many of her close friends and comrades murdered by the Nazis for being Jews, or communists, or both. And yet, as a true radical living ahead of her time, we have much to learn from the lessons of her life’s work as we celebrate her 150th birthday.
Rosa Luxemburg—a revolutionary life
Rosa Luxemburg, the foremost thinker of democracy in the Marxist tradition, the ‘living flame of the revolution’, was born in 1871 to a middle-class Jewish family in Zamosch, Poland. Rosa was a thrice-oppressed citizen of the Russian empire: a woman, a Jewess and a Pole. Polish was banned in her school, and she was brought up in a typical Jewish minority home, where a mix of Jewish and gentile culture introduced her to the world. She had an early political education participating in the fight against Polish nationalism and seeing leaders of her movement executed for standing up for their beliefs.
Much of the contemporary left, drawing on Marx and Engels, had argued that an independent Poland would be a bulwark against the Russian empire. Rosa and her comrades thought otherwise, and argued that Polish independence would only strengthen connections between the Russian and Polish bourgeoise. As a teenager she saw leaders of the movement she supported executed for their beliefs. She left for Zurich to pursue a PhD as women were barred from education in Poland.
When Rosa was 27, she made a forceful debut as a socialist writer, rebutting the argument of Engels’ most famous student, Edward Bernstein. Bernstein had insisted that workers must give up on revolution in the immediate and instead compromise with social democrats for steady improvements of their working conditions. In Social Reform or Revolution, Rosa rejected this and argued that while social democracy must strive to improve living conditions in the here and now, revolution must remain the goal of any socialist movement. An instant star on the international left, she moved to Berlin, then the unequivocal capital of international socialism, and continued to develop her thought. In 1905, she travelled to Russia anticipating the 1905 revolution and authoring after it The Mass Strike, the Political Party and Trade Unions, in which she considered the use of strikes as a way to develop socialism from below, positing that revolutionary consciousness is built through action itself.
In 1913 she published one of her most important interventions, The Accumulation of Capital, a work whose argument that capitalism is inextricably bound to imperialism placed her further to the left than many of her peers on the pressing issue of colonialism. Her thesis, familiar to us today, was that capitalism’s growth imperative means it must seek new markets into which it can expand, conquering lands over oceans and taking advantage of non-capitalist economies (their workers and materials being directly exploited to sustain European and American capitalism). This work marked her as a left outlier of her party, the German SPD; she dissented against their gravitation to the center and their appeasement of militarism and imperialism. Luxemburg also spoke out against the First World War, which she saw as a clear imperialist endeavor, strengthening the bourgeoisie at the expense of the workers, who were used as cannon fodder. For these views she was incarcerated on the grounds of incitement and dissent and as a result spent most of the war behind bars.
While Rosa was enthusiastic about the Russian revolution, she nevertheless criticized Lenin, her lifelong comrade, for his concession of democracy and centralist tactics such as the dissolution of the Provisional Government and Constituent Assembly. Luxemburg defended democracy as an integral part of the process of revolution as well as its goal. In 1919, at the age of 47, she was murdered by proto-fascist militias in league with centrist forces in Germany; a murder that to many signaled the rise of the bourgeois-fascist coalition that would take hold under Hitler.
‘Being on the left’ is not enough: revolutionary work is daily work
Rosa spent her life as a left outlier, an ‘ultra’, leader from outside. She was a party member, but she knew that just subscribing to socialist politics is not enough. Her emphasis on socialism from below and building revolutionary consciousness created a commitment to daily work. Rosa was an advocate of universal suffrage and observed that middle-class suffragettes had always neglected their working-class sisters. She noticed also how German socialism had turned a blind eye to wrongs carried out across oceans on behalf of Germans. One reason her legacy is so enduring and so inspiring, is that she noticed how integrity and commitment to social justice entails commitment to an overarching struggle. Her resilience even in the darkest of times stems from this commitment to the revolutionary cause and her ability to see the future beyond the blind spots of her era. In some of her most galvanizing words, written in 1915 in The Junius Pamphlet, she scolds those who sit quietly as injustice is done:
Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus, it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.
As one Jewish woman on the left writing about Rosa, another Jewish woman on the left, I found a quote by her in response to a novel on Spinoza particularly resonant. The book had been sent to her by her friend Mathilde Wurm in 1917, who asked:“what do you want with this theme of the “special suffering of the Jews?” Rosa replied, “I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the black people in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch . . . I have no special place in my heart for the [Jewish] ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.” Rosa was proud of her Jewish roots. She was also, as Hannah Arendt noted, self-consciously a woman. However, she understood viscerally that solidarity emerges from the ability to think beyond your specific position in the world and the oppressions that implicate you directly.
Rosa was very well aware that both sexism and anti-semitism were used against her, sometimes together. She fought against multiple layers of oppression and understood the effects of racism and imperialism before many on the left had begun to consider these issues. She understood, firsthand, that declaring oneself a ‘socialist’ was not enough, that many structures enabled both the suffering of millions in lands she had never visited and the dispossession of workers in Germany and Poland. Rosa’s legacy demonstrates that solidarity and empathy transcend our differences, and that we can understand and act against injustice even if we do not have firsthand experience of it. Indeed, she shows us that it is our moral calling to act against injustices which do not touch us personally, as we are all implicated in each other, globally, as citizens of the world.
The day after the revolution
Often overlooked in accounts of Rosa Luxemburg as a historical figure is the amount of time she spent thinking of the day after the revolution, and considering the practicalities of social policies instrumental crucial to the realisation of revolution and the consolidation of socialist democracy alike. Much of the writing that Rosa has left for us to consider is being discovered and compiled, translated for the first time through Verso’s Complete Works project. But from the material we have access to, it is clear that in her own words, Rosa thought of both reform and revolution. It is beyond doubt that revolution was the red thread of Rosa Luxemburg’s work. She devoted her life to a radically different future, in which all would have access to justice and equality. But she also spent much time thinking of the way towards this future, of the incremental steps we must all take, the rights we must fight for, and the freedoms we must defend.
Rosa Luxemburg’s life coincided with the dawn of social democracy as we know it today. Many of the rights and freedoms she fought for — the eight-hour day, universal suffrage, the right to fair trial and against the death penalty — sit at the heart of any modern social democracy and at the centre of what we now term human rights. However, many of the struggles she fought in are yet to conclude in the way she would have hoped. Imperialism has new guises and has all but disappeared. The exploitation of the proletariat continues unabated, while the need for internationalist solidarity has only been strengthened by capital’s globalisation. Rosa had to extend her empathy and imaginaries to think of how workers were treated across the world to sustain German bourgeois capitalism. Today we can, with a click of a button, access infinite data and stories of those whose labour sustains contemporary capitalism.
Rosa’s pioneering work as an anti-racist and anti-imperialist writer and political organizer speaks volumes to our current day, when refugees die crossing oceans in an attempt to find a safety, when multimillion corporations make easy dividends on the backs of underpaid workers. The route to abolition of all injustice is fighting any and all wrongs we see along the way. Insisting on the rights and freedoms for which Rosa fought, understanding that these freedoms are easily taken, but hard won, would be an apt tribute to her on her 150th birthday. As would demonstrating our solidarity with prisoners who are vilified and denied basic human rights, defending freedom of speech across the world, especially when people are risking their lives when standing up to despots; this is all part and parcel of the revolutionary struggle, as Rosa Luxemburg reminds us today.
To be human above all things
A deep and abiding mischaracterization of Rosa Luxemburg has been to portray her as a hot-headed, cruel radical. The revolutionary axis of her life is clear and robust, but it was supported by an equal amount of compassion and empathy. Rosa Luxemburg suffered from ill health her entire life, and couldn’t travel far; however, her brilliant mind, which led her comrade Franz Mehring to credit her with the title of “best brain after Marx”, had the ability to see injustices far from her. Rosa was so deeply engrossed in the world and felt its horrors, as well as its beauty, in the very depth of her being. It is a falsehood to separate Rosa Luxemburg’s uncompromising integrity from her astonishment at nature, in all its glory and brutality. A talented correspondent, she wrote to Mathilde Wurm in 1916:
Have you had enough of a New Year’s greeting now? Then see to it that you stay human... being human means joyfully throwing your whole life ‘on the scales of destiny’ when needs be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud. Ach, I know of no formula to write you for being human….
150 years after her birth we still lack the formula to being human, but we can detect elements of it in the deep thinking and unwavering commitment to democratic revolutionary socialism of Rosa Luxemburg. And so, in the spirit of her own words, we must hone ourselves for the struggle, alongside the long arc of history, maintaining our humanity all the while.
Happy Birthday, Rosa Luxemburg! Thank you for teaching so many of us how to be human.
Dr. Dana Mills is an author, activist, dancer and academic. She is the author of Dance and Politics: Moving beyond Boundaries (Manchester University Press, 2016); Rosa Luxemburg’ (Reaktion, 2020) and Dance and Activism: a century of radical dance across the world (Bloomsbury, 2021). She is a member of Rosa Luxemburg Complete Works editorial board.
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For more reading about the life and impact of Rosa Luxemburg, see our reading list.