Tony Cliff

Rosa Luxemburg

Biographical sketch

Rosa Luxemburg was born in the small Polish town of Zamosc on 5 March 1871. From early youth she was active in the socialist movement. She joined a revolutionary party called Proletariat, founded in 1882, some 21 years before the Russian Social Democratic Party (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) came into being. From the beginning Proletariat was, in principles and programme, many steps ahead of the revolutionary movement in Russia. While the Russian revolutionary movement was still restricted to acts of individual terrorism carried out by a few heroic intellectuals, Proletariat was organising and leading thousands of workers on strike. In 1886, however, Proletariat was practically decapitated by the execution of four of its leaders, the imprisonment of 23 others for long terms of hard labour, and the banishment of about 200 more. Only small circles were saved from the wreck, and it was one of these that Rosa Luxemburg joined at the age of 16. By 1889 the police had caught up with her, and she had to leave Poland, her comrades thinking she could do more useful work abroad than in prison. She went to Switzerland, to Zurich, which was the most important centre of Polish and Russian emigration. There she entered the university where she studied natural sciences, mathematics and economics. She took an active part in the local labour movement and in the intense intellectual life of the revolutionary emigrants.

Hardly more than a couple of years later Rosa Luxemburg was already recognised as the theoretical leader of the revolutionary socialist party of Poland. She became the main contributor to the party paper, Sprawa Rabotnicza, published in Paris. In 1894 the name of the party, Proletariat, was changed to become the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland; shortly afterwards Lithuania was added to the title. Rosa continued to be the theoretical leader of the party (the SDKPL) till the end of her life.

In August 1893 she represented the party at the Congress of the Socialist International. There, a young woman of 22, she had to contend with well-known veterans of another Polish party, the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), whose main plank was the independence of Poland and which claimed the recognition of all the experienced elders of international socialism. Support for the national movement in Poland had the weight of long tradition behind it: Marx and Engels, too, had made it an important plank in their policies. Undaunted by all this, Rosa Luxemburg struck out at the PPS, accusing it of clear nationalistic tendencies and a proneness to diverting the workers from the path of class struggle; and she dared to take a different position to the old masters and oppose the slogan of independence for Poland. (For elaboration on this, see Rosa Luxemburg and the national question below.) Her adversaries heaped abuse on her, some of them, like the veteran disciple and friend of Marx and Engels, Wilhelm Liebknecht, going so far as to accuse her of being an agent of the Tsarist secret police. But she stuck to her point.

Intellectually she grew by leaps and bounds. She was drawn irresistibly to the centre of the international labour movement, Germany, where she made her way in 1898.

She started writing assiduously, and after a time became one of the main contributors to the most important Marxist theoretical journal of the time, Die Neue Zeit. Invariably independent in judgment and criticism, even the tremendous prestige of Karl Kautsky, its editor, “the Pope of Marxism” as he used to be called, did not deflect her from her considered opinions once she had become convinced.

Rosa Luxemburg entered heart and soul into the labour movement in Germany. She was a regular contributor to a number of socialist papers – in some cases their editor – she addressed many mass meetings and took part energetically in all the tasks the movement called upon her to perform. Throughout, her speeches and articles were original creative works, in which she appealed to reason rather than emotion, and in which she always opened up to her readers a wider and grander horizon than they had known before.

At that time the movement in Germany was split into two main trends, one reformist and the other revolutionary, with the former growing in strength. Germany had enjoyed continuous prosperity since the slump of 1873. The workers’ standard of living had improved uninterruptedly, if slowly; trade unions and co-operatives grew stronger.

Against this background, the bureaucracy of these movements, together with the increasing parliamentary representation of the Social Democratic Party, moved away from revolution and lent great strength to those who were already proclaiming gradualism or reformism as their principle. The main spokesman of this trend was Eduard Bernstein, a disciple of Engels. Between 1896 and 1898 he wrote a series of articles in Die Neue Zeit on Problems of Socialism, more and more openly attacking the principles of Marxism. A long and bitter discussion broke out. Rosa Luxemburg, who had just entered the German labour movement, immediately sprang to the defence of Marxism. Brilliantly and with magnificent drive, she attacked the spreading cancer of reformism in her booklet, Social Reform or Social Revolution. (For an elaboration of her criticism of reformism see Reform or Revolution below.)

Soon afterwards, in 1899, the French “Socialist” Millerand entered a coalition government with a capitalist party. Rosa Luxemburg followed this experiment closely and analysed it in a series of brilliant articles dealing with the situation in the French labour movement in general, and the question of coalition governments in particular (see Reform or Revolution below). After the fiasco of MacDonald in Britain, of the Weimar Republic in Germany, of the Popular Front in France in the 1930s and the post-Second World War coalition governments in the same country, it is clear that the lessons drawn by Rosa Luxemburg are not of historical interest alone.

In 1903-04 Rosa Luxemburg indulged in a polemic with Lenin, with whom she disagreed on the national question (see the section on the national question below), and on the conception of party structure, and the relation between the party and the activity of the masses (see Party and class below).

In 1904 after “insulting the Kaiser” she was sentenced to three months imprisonment, of which she served a month.

In 1905, with the outbreak of the first Russian Revolution, she wrote a series of articles and pamphlets for the Polish party, in which she developed the idea of the permanent revolution, which had been independently developed by Trotsky and Parvus but was held by few Marxists of the time. While both the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, despite the deep cleavage between them, believed that the Russian Revolution was to be a bourgeois democratic one, Rosa argued that it would develop beyond the stage of bourgeois democracy and would either end in workers’ power or complete defeat. Her slogan was “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat based on the peasantry.” (It was not for nothing that Stalin denounced Luxemburg posthumously in 1931 as a Trotskyist. [1])

However, to think, write and speak about the revolution was not enough for Rosa Luxemburg. The motto of her life was, “At the beginning was the deed.” And although she was in bad health at the time, she smuggled herself into Russian Poland as soon as she was able to do so (in December 1905). The zenith of the revolution had by then passed. The masses were still active, but were now hesitant while reaction was raising its head. All meetings were forbidden, but the workers still held meetings in their strongholds, the factories. All workers’ papers were suppressed, but Rosa Luxemburg’s party paper continued to appear daily, although printed clandestinely. On 4 March 1906 she was arrested and kept for four months, first in prison, then in a fortress. Thereafter she was freed, on the grounds of ill health and her German nationality, and expelled from the country.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 gave flesh and blood to an idea Rosa Luxemburg had conceived some years earlier: that mass strikes – political and economic – constitute a cardinal element in the revolutionary workers’ struggle for power, distinguishing socialist from all previous revolutions. Now she elaborated the idea on the basis of a new historical experience (see Mass strikes and revolution below).

Speaking to this effect at a public meeting, she was accused of “inciting to violence” and spent another two months in prison, this time in Germany.

In 1907 she participated in the Congress of the Socialist International held in Stuttgart. She spoke in the name of the Russian and Polish parties, developing a consistent revolutionary attitude to imperialist war and militarism (see The fight against imperialism and war below).

Between 1905 and 1910 the split widened between Rosa Luxemburg and the centrist leadership of the SPD, of which Kautsky was the theoretical mouthpiece. Already in 1907 Rosa Luxemburg had expressed her fear that the party leaders, notwithstanding their profession of Marxism, would flinch before a situation in which decisive action was called for. The climax came in 1910, with a complete break between Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky on the question of the workers’ road to power. From now on the SPD was split into three separate tendencies: the reformists, who progressively adopted an imperialist policy; the so-called Marxist centre, led by Kautsky (now nicknamed by Luxemburg the “leader of the swamp”) which kept its verbal radicalism but confined itself more and more to parliamentary methods of struggle; and the revolutionary wing, of which Rosa Luxemburg was the main inspiration.

In 1913 Rosa Luxemburg published her most important theoretical work, The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to the Economic Explanation of Imperialism. This is, without doubt, one of the most original contributions to Marxist economic doctrine since Capital. In its wealth of knowledge, brilliance of style, trenchancy of analysis and intellectual independence, this book, as Mehring, Marx’s biographer, stated, was the nearest to Capital of any Marxist work. The central problem it studies is of tremendous theoretical and political importance: namely, what effects the extension of capitalism into new, backward territories has on the internal contradictions rending capitalism and on the stability of the system (for an analysis of this work, see The Accumulation of Capital below).

On 20 February 1914 Rosa Luxemburg was arrested for inciting soldiers to mutiny. The basis of the charge was a speech in which she declared, “If they expect us to murder our French or other foreign brothers, then let us tell them, ‘No, under no circumstances’.” In court she turned from defendant into prosecutor, and her speech, published later under the title Militarism, War and the Working Class, is one of the most inspiring revolutionary socialist condemnations of imperialism. She was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment but was not detained on the spot. On leaving the courtroom she immediately went to a mass meeting at which she repeated her revolutionary anti-war propaganda.

When the First World War broke out, practically all the leaders of the Socialist Party [SPD] were swept into the patriotic tide. On 3 August 1914 the parliamentary group of German Social Democracy decided to vote in favour of war credits for the Kaiser’s government. Of the 111 deputies only 15 showed any desire to vote against. However, after their request for permission to do so had been rejected, they submitted to party discipline, and on 4 August the whole Social Democratic group unanimously voted in favour of the credits. A few months later, on 2 December, Karl Liebknecht flouted party discipline to vote with his conscience. His was the sole vote against war credits.

This decision of the party leadership was a cruel blow to Rosa Luxemburg. However, she did not give way to despair. On the same day, 4 August, on which the Social Democratic deputies rallied to the Kaiser’s banner, a small group of socialists met in her apartment and decided to take up the struggle against the war. This group, led by Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin, ultimately became the Spartakus League. For four years, mainly from prison, Rosa continued to lead, inspire and organise the revolutionaries, keeping high the banner of international socialism (for further details of her anti-war policy, see The fight against imperialism and war below).

The outbreak of the war cut Rosa Luxemburg off from the Polish labour movement, but she must have gained deep satisfaction from the fact that her own Polish party remained loyal throughout to the ideas of international socialism.

The revolution in Russia of February 1917 was a realisation of Rosa Luxemburg’s policy of revolutionary opposition to the war and struggle for the overthrow of imperialist governments. Feverishly she followed the events from prison, studying them closely in order to draw lessons for the future. Unhesitatingly she stated that the February victory was not the end of the struggle but only its beginning, that only workers’ power could assure peace. From prison she issued call after call to the German workers and soldiers to emulate their Russian brethren, overthrow the Junkers and capitalists and thus, while serving the Russian Revolution, at the same time prevent themselves from bleeding to death under the ruins of capitalist barbarism.

When the October Revolution broke out, Rosa Luxemburg welcomed it enthusiastically, praising it in the highest terms. At the same time she did not believe that uncritical acceptance of everything the Bolsheviks did would be of service to the labour movement. She clearly foresaw that if the Russian Revolution remained in isolation a number of distortions would cripple its development; and quite early in the development of Soviet Russia she pointed out such distortions, particularly on the question of democracy (see Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the Bolsheviks in power below).

On 8 November 1918 the German Revolution freed Rosa Luxemburg from prison. With all her energy and enthusiasm she threw herself into the revolution. Unfortunately the forces of reaction were strong. Right-wing Social Democratic leaders and generals of the old Kaiser’s army joined forces to suppress the revolutionary working class. Thousands of workers were murdered; on 15 January 1919 Karl Liebknecht was killed; on the same day a soldier’s rifle butt smashed into Rosa Luxemburg’s skull.

With her death the international workers’ movement lost one of its noblest souls. “The finest brain amongst the scientific successors of Marx and Engels”, as Mehring said, was no more. In her life, as in her death, she gave everything for the liberation of humanity.



1. See J.V. Stalin, Works, vol.XIII, pp.86-104.


Last updated on 20.4.2003