by Colin Turbett • 100 years ago this month, Rosa Luxemburg was beaten up and shot dead in Berlin by Freikorps members, the forerunners of the Nazis, on the implicit orders of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party.
Her broken body was thrown into a canal and not found until months later. As leaders of the newly formed Communist Party, she and Karl Liebknecht had, reluctantly but unconditionally, backed an armed insurrection that had broken out in Germany’s capital in the midst of the crisis that followed defeat in the first world war.
The action, which they had judged premature, ended badly and both leaders were killed. Similar movements were crushed throughout Germany in the months to follow.
With failure of revolution elsewhere in the developed capitalist world, the infant Soviet Union was left in isolation: although its internal and external enemies were eventually defeated at great cost in the Civil War, it was unable to become the beacon of socialism that its Bolshevik creators had fought and argued for.
The USSR eventually disappeared in the heat of its own contradictions some 80 years later, having at its highest point, been instrumental in victory over the fascism in 1945 that had killed so many, including Rosa Luxemburg.
Other Bolshevik leaders, as she could have predicted, were murdered by Stalin—revolutionary zeal having no place by the 1930s in the USSR.
These cataclysmic 20th century events left us all the poorer and made our task of continuing the work of those outstanding leaders of 100 years ago so much harder.
Rosa Luxemburg was and remains, an icon of the movement—a Marxist first and foremost but many other things that made her a fighter as well as theorist: an independent woman who criticised liberal feminists, a disabled person who refused to accept the limits of physical incapacity, an uncompromising internationalist who was imprisoned for her opposition to the war, a believer in the power of the working class to change the world through decisive action rather than docile voting, in elections stacked against their interests.
Born in Poland in 1871, of Jewish descent, she spent her adult life in German circles and became part of that country’s socialist movement.
Her writings and the debates surrounding them echo the arguments of today within the socialist movement (including those surrounding Brexit): Should we work within bourgeois social democratic parties? How tight and uncompromising should our socialist organisation be? What is our attitude to alliances with would be enemies who seek to destroy us?
What about the right of small nations to self-determination and the middle-class led nationalist parties that lead such struggles?
Amongst her most important and original works are Reform or Revolution (1900) and The Mass Strike (1906) but she turned out a constant stream of articles from 1894 until her death, that reflect the debates of her day.
Her recently published letters demonstrate a warm individual with a passion for life. Everyone on the left with an axe to grind today claims her heritage—usually without understanding the historical context within which she operated. Rosa Luxemburg’s writings are of major importance to those who seek to learn from the successes and failures of our socialist forbears.
Of course, the arguments between them were bitter: Luxemburg famously disagreed with Lenin over many important issues—party organisation versus spontaneity, strong leadership versus internal debate and inertia, the right of small nations to self-determination versus socialist internationalism, necessary action to defend the revolution versus democracy and freedom.
Most of these arguments were tactical—as a comrade and friend, she unequivocally supported the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 but criticised decisions made as events unfolded.
She foresaw that a failure of the socialist project would lead to barbarism—a theme that echoes down the years as the world faces gross economic inequality, climate disaster, continued threat from weapons of mass destruction and the return of populist right-wing politicians in a manner unseen since the 1930s.
Both Lenin and Luxemburg, learned from such debates and could shift position and be more compromising in action than they might seem when they wrote and spoke, but both also understood the need for distinct ‘communist’ party organisation and leadership, hard work and activism.
Although Luxemburg believed that the mass strike would happen spontaneously and unleash the potential of the working class for a decisive assumption of power, she never sat back and waited for this to happen: she worked feverishly for her entire adult life, at home and in exile, to build for its realisation—eventually 100 years ago, placing herself at such risk doing so that she was an easy target for the enemies of progress.
Had she lived, perhaps events in Germany would have taken a different turn—but history of course does not work like that.