Rosa Luxemburg: A revolutionary for our times

On the second Sunday in January, activists and admirers visit the gravesite of Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin, a tradition begun after the Nazi era in the former East Germany.

Jailed for her opposition to the First World War, Luxemburg had been released after the signing of the armistice.

A Social Democratic (SPD) government had taken charge in postwar Germany, and it was busy quelling a Spartacus League workers' uprising in Berlin. Luxemburg (formerly with Spartacus League) supported the uprising after it took place, but did not favour it beforehand.

Rosa Luxemburg was by now a founder of the German Communist Party; she called for a postwar revolution to rid Germany of capitalist imperialism.

On January 15, 1919, she and her comrade Karl Liebknecht were arrested by paramilitary police, and then murdered. He was taken to the morgue, her body was thrown into the Landwher canal, and only found five months later.

The Socialist Congress of 1907 had adopted a resolution Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin introduced, calling on working people to oppose war. At war's outbreak she called on Germans not to fire on British or French soldiers, and so was imprisoned as a traitor to Germany.

Her scholarly work identified the links between capitalism, imperialism and militarism, but she expected more from life than recognition of her achievements as a thinker. Rosa Luxemburg wanted to change the course of history. 

Her incredible adventure began in a Polish village, within the Russian Empire of Alexander III. Born in 1870 into a loving Jewish family, by age 15 Luxemburg was a revolutionary, organizing a general strike in the Polish effort to free itself from Russian rule.

Based on her experience, she argued that revolution could not be made from above, it occurred  through spontaneous mass action from below. In her words: "before it happens, a revolution is perceived as impossible; after it happens it is seen as inevitable."

By age 19 she was in political exile in Zurich, where in 1897 she would receive her PhD in economics. Still active in the Polish Social Democratic Party while abroad, she would arrange a fictitious marriage in order to immigrate to Germany, and become active in the SPD, the most important working-class political formation in Europe.

Luxemburg brought a "clap of thunder" into the world of social democracy. She contested her SPD colleagues Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, befriended Clara Zetkin, and her work attracted the attention of both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.

Her insistence that capitalism be overthrown left Luxembourg offside with what would become the dominant force in 20th-century social democracy: reform for its own sake. She supported reform, but as a means to achieving socialism.

Luxemburg considered freedom of speech and assembly, and democracy, to be integral to socialism, and was a critic of Lenin and the Russian Revolution of 1917 for its dictatorial turn.

Luxemburg rejected violence and terrorism as revolutionary tactics. The proletariat and the underprivileged had the power necessary to build a socialist society and do it peacefully.

In what would dismay social democrats from mid-20th century onwards, Luxemburg used Marxian categories to explain how capitalist imperialism linked to militarism and to war.

Workers received less than they produced from capitalists. This left them unable to purchase all of what they produced. Unsold goods piled up. Imperial states helped capitalists eliminate unsold production by offering credits for military production and then stockpiling arms.

Her analysis would give anti-war activists a window on the making of the military-industrial complex.

Imperial states helped capitalists expand abroad, lending money to capitalists for such operations as diamond and gold mining in Africa or railways. The loans were paid back with interest and in profits from non-capitalist production of goods, and were essential to the "Accumulation of Capital," the title of her main economics book.

Capitalist rivalry gave imperial states reasons to go to war. Capitalists drove down wages at home, yet imperialist states expected the working class to take up arms in defence of their oppressors' interests.

Feminists opposed to capitalist patriarchy, environmentalists concerned with resource exploitation, Third World victims of economic exploitation, or socialists angry at how financial capital expands while workers' wages trend down, all have reason to study Rosa Luxemburg.

The collected works of "Red Rosa" are beginning to appear in English. A selection of her letters (many composed in her time in prison before and during the war) is available. Her economic works have been published and her political writings are to come, as well as her complete correspondence.

Canadians wanting to pay their respects to the greatest of all social democrats can travel to Quebec City. The recently renovated Museum of Fine Arts exhibits the stupendous series of large canvases Homage À Rosa Luxemburg by the great modern painter Jean Paul Riopelle. His work might inspire visitors, as they did himself, and indeed, as she does the world.

Duncan Cameron is former president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: JeanneMenjoulet&Cie/flickr

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