Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919) was a Polish revolutionary and theorist. She led the German workers' uprisings which followed World War I and is considered one of the pioneer activists and foremost martyrs of the international Communist movement.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamo in Russian Poland and brought up in Warsaw. She was the daughter of a middle-class, Polish-speaking Jewish merchant. Dainty, almost tiny, she walked with a limp as the result of a childhood disease.

From her earliest years Rosa possessed "one of the most penetrating analytical minds of her age." In a period when the czarist government was increasing its religious and political oppression in Poland, especially of the Jews, she gained admission to the best girls' high school in Warsaw, usually reserved for Russians. There she joined a revolutionary cell and began a lifelong association with the socialist movement. When she was 18, her activities came to the attention of the Russian secret police, and she fled to Switzerland to avoid arrest.

Luxemburg continued her interests in socialist and revolutionary activities there. She earned a doctorate of laws at the University of Zurich in 1898. Her thesis on industrial development in Poland later served as a basis for the program of the Social Democratic party of Poland. She decided to go to Germany and attach herself to the large, vital, and well-organized Social Democratic party (SPD). In Berlin she obtained German citizenship through a fictitious marriage and quickly became one of the most effective, respected, and even beloved leaders of the international socialist movement.

With Karl Kautsky, Luxemburg headed the revisionist wing of the SPD in opposition to its major theorist, Eduard Bernstein. She wrote articles in socialist newspapers increasingly critical of Bernstein's political and economic theories. Gradually, in a series of works published before the outbreak of World War I, she drifted apart from Kautsky and established herself as the acknowledged leader of the left, or revolutionary, wing of the SPD. She gave new life and theoretical form to the revolutionary goals of the party in a period when most factions were oriented toward parliamentary reform.

During World War I Luxemburg, now dubbed the "Red Rose" by police, was imprisoned for her revolutionary activities. Released for a short time in 1916, she helped to found the revolutionary Spartacus Union with Karl Liebknecht. When she again emerged from prison, in 1918, dissatisfied with the failure to effect a thoroughgoing socialist revolution in Germany, she helped to found the German Communist party (KPD) and its newspaper, the Rote Fahne, and drafted its program. She and Liebknecht urged revolution against the Ebert government, which came to power after the armistice, and were largely responsible for the wave of strikes, riots, and violence which swept across Germany from the end of 1918 until June 1919.

In January 1919 one of the most violent outbreaks occurred in Berlin. Luxemburg and Liebknecht, in spite of their doubts as to the timing, supported the Berlin workers in their call for revolution. The troops that were called in acted with extreme violence and brutality, crushing the revolt in a few days. On January 15 Liebknecht and Luxemburg were caught and murdered by the soldiers who held them prisoner.


Further Reading on Rosa Luxemburg

A good study of Rosa Luxemburg in English is the abridged version of J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (1966). Nettl presents an exhaustive, scholarly analysis of her life, work, and influence. A shorter but older and more partisan treatment is Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (trans. 1940). Luxemburg is discussed in the personal account of Bertram D. Wolfe, Strange Communists I Have Known (1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Abraham, Richard, Rosa Luxemburg: a life for the International, Oxford England; New York: Berg; New York: Distributed excusively in the US and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Bronner, Stephen Eric, A revolutionary for our times: Rosa Luxemburg, London: Pluto Press, 1981; New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Ettinger, Elzbieta, Rosa Luxemburg: a life, Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Luxemburg, Rosa, Comrade and lover: Rosa Luxemburg's Letters to Leo Jogiches, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1979.

Nettl, J. P., Rosa Luxemburg, New York: Schocken Books: Distributed by Pantheon Books, 1989, 1969.

Shepardson, Donald E., Rosa Luxemburg and the noble dream, New York: P. Lang, 1995.