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Socialist Review, July/August 1994

Sharon Geoghegan


Path of revolution


From Socialist Review, No. 177, July/August 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Rosa Luxemburg
Paul Frölich
Bookmarks £9.95

Rosa Luxemburg was an active revolutionary socialist during the end of the 19th century and up to her death in 1919. Paul Frölich’s biography covers Rosa Luxemburg’s political life from school in Poland fighting against the anti-Semitism in the school system to the time when she was murdered at the hands of the counter-revolution in Germany in 1919.

But it is not just a life story. It covers the ideas and events which took place in her lifetime. They are brought to life in a way which is fascinating and easy to get to grips with. Paul Frölich includes all Rosa Luxemburg’s political ideas and criticisms of the politics of that period but in a way which relates to the day to day struggles in her life. Because she was always active in the class struggle, this book gives us an insight into the excitement and turmoil, and also the frustration, of being a revolutionary during that period.

Many of Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas and political positions are still extremely relevant today. Many which were either opposed or ignored during her lifetime have been proved correct with events which have taken place since. The arguments and ideas which Frölich covers are therefore invaluable for socialists today.

Rosa Luxemburg delivered her first attack against reformism in the 1890s. It was a time when many on the left felt that capitalism was becoming tame and reasonable, and so for the first time reformism developed as a theoretical concept inside the Marxist working class movement.

She summed up her ideas brilliantly when she said:

‘Whoever opts for the path of legal reform, in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power, actually chooses not a calmer and slower road to the same aim, but a different aim altogether.’

Probably one of Rosa Luxemburg’s greatest contributions is her pamphlet on the 1905 revolution in Russia, The Mass Strike. At that time a general mass strike was unimaginable and was generally opposed by the majority of socialists.

It was not until after her death that the importance of this pamphlet was generally accepted. Rosa stressed the importance of the mass strike in the revolutionary process. Not just an outward political challenge, but an economic challenge was needed to strike at the heart of the capitalist system. Frölich shows, through looking at the opposition Rosa had to meet around these ideas, how she reached her conclusions. This pamphlet revealed how she formed her opinions on the forms and methods of action and how she succeeded in solving problems at a time when the most basic conditions for their solutions barely existed.

In her pamphlet on the mass strike, but also on many later occasions, Rosa Luxemburg emphasised that revolutionary movements did not come about as a result of a decision made by party officials, but broke out spontaneously and under certain historical conditions. She also pointed to the importance of a conscious leadership to lead such movements in the right direction.

Unfortunately, although Rosa Luxemburg always argued that an organisation was important, she never really thought through what sort of organisation was, and is, needed. This was one of her major weaknesses and she did not change her mind until very late on in her life.

From the first moment that Rosa Luxemburg arrived in Germany, until the formation of the German Communist Party, she was a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Although the SPD initially claimed to be a revolutionary party, ultimately even some of the best socialists within it moved towards reformist politics.

Because Rosa Luxemburg spent most of her life in the SPD, Frölich’s book charts the progress of the SPD during this period. He shows how the SPD moved steadily rightwards with the majority of the party ultimately supporting the First World War and German imperialism.

The revolution in Germany 1918–19 was the most blatant example of the bankruptcy of the SPD and reformist politics. From the beginning they were conscious opponents of the revolution. Although Rosa Luxemburg did finally break from the SPD at the outbreak of the revolution to form the German Communist Party, it was far too late. It meant that there was not a revolutionary party rooted in the working class. The majority of those looking for revolutionary ideas still looked to the SPD who in the end sold out the revolution.

Rosa Luxemburg had many other arguments during this period – on imperialism and war, her theory of the accumulation of capital and her criticisms of the Bolsheviks and Lenin’s conception of the party. All of these are explored in Frölich’s book in an accessible way which is related to the day to day struggle.

There’s no doubt that Rosa Luxemburg came to some wrong conclusions in her arguments, and ultimately she herself suffered through her political isolation in the SPD. However, she has a special place in history and stands in the tradition of revolutionary socialism. Paul Frölich’s book is an excellent start to exploring that tradition.

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