Rosa Luxemburg, 1871-1919

The woman whose life and work inspires us was one of the great revolutionaries of the 20th century, and one of the founders of social democratic thought.

The daughter of a Warsaw merchant, her dazzling intelligence allowed her to study despite the prejudices that prevailed against women, and despite the anti-Semitic discrimination that existed in Europe at the time. Rosa Luxemburg was awarded a PhD at a time when very few women even went to university, and is said to have spoken eleven languages. She soon stood out as one of the principal leaders of European social democracy.

In 1889, at the age of 18, she left Poland and took refuge in Switzerland as a result of being persecuted by the police due to her socialist militancy. There she finished her studies, came into contact with exiled revolutionaries and joined the leadership of the young Polish Social Democratic Party. She married Gustav Lübeck in 1895 in order to acquire German nationality and to be able to work with the labor movement in that country.

Together with the German politician Karl Liebknecht she founded the Spartacus League, which would later become the German Communist Party. She was editor of the theoretical Marxist newspaper “Neue Zeit” and author of several books. She was accused of “insulting the Kaiser” (emperor) and sentenced (1903-1904) to nine months in prison. She participated directly in the 1905 revolution in Poland. In March 1906 she was arrested and imprisoned in Warsaw for four months.


Rosa Luxemburg participated actively both in the Congress of the German Social Democratic Party in 1906, and in the International Socialist Congress held in Stuttgart a year later. There she intervened on behalf of the Russian and Polish parties, her thought representing the most radical option within the Second International. A great theorist, she made important contributions to the development of Marxism, especially regarding democratic socialism and the relationship between nationalism and socialism.

She also made original theoretical contributions to imperialism and the collapse of capitalism in her 1913 work “The accumulation of capital”. Her criticism of Marx is based on his predictions about the cyclical crises of capitalism. Marx thought that capitalism, as an economic and political system based on growth and the constant search for profit, would collapse at some point due to saturation. However, many decades after Marx died the periodic crises of capitalism seemed to be deferred or solved without producing convulsions in the system. Rosa Luxemburg found the explanation for this in colonialism, concluding that the growth of the capitalist powers found a way to continue its expansion in the colonies, which, while providing raw materials at very low cost, also served as a market where manufactured products could be sold. She also presented the first theories about imperialism, which Lenin would later develop. Rosa Luxemburg believed in the international socialism, i.e. going beyond particular situations and nationalisms, in which the working masses, in solidarity, would take power.

Lenin was also criticized by Rosa Luxemburg, especially regarding the ideas he held regarding democracy in the party and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Rosa Luxemburg postulated less directness and greater integration of the grassroots in party dynamics, and opposed the conception defended by Lenin, of the “democratic centralism” of a party of professional revolutionaries.

At the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, the German Social Democratic parliamentary group (SPD) unanimously supported war credits. Rosa Luxemburg, a convinced pacifist, formed part of the SPD‘s internal opposition, distributing hundreds of thousands of leaflets in order to mobilize the population against the war. She was arrested once again on February 20th, this time accused of inciting soldiers to rebellion. She was sentenced to a year in prison, but on leaving the court she went immediately to a popular rally, where she repeated her revolutionary anti-war propaganda. The conflict over the war credits ordered by the Kaiser to finance the war activity finally led to a split in the party in January 1917, and the foundation, on April 6, of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD).

In 1918 the winds of revolution were blowing in Germany, left wing groups were looking to the Russian example and the population was tired of the war. A general strike was declared on January 28th and the formation of Workers’ Councils began. On January 31st, the strike was prohibited, a state of exception declared, and repression became more widespread. In March, Rosa Luxemburg was imprisoned together with Leo Jogiches and other Spartacist militants who had spread revolutionary propaganda in the army. On November 9, as a result of an uprising of sailors in Kiel, the “November Revolution” irrupted, with Workers and Soldiers’ Councils being formed throughout the country. Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated. The re-founding of Germany as a socialist democracy with a new Constitution was the objective. Rosa Luxemburg, released only two days previously, arrived in Berlin where she and Karl Liebknecht co-published “Red Flag”, the Spartacus League newspaper, in order to influence daily political events. In the last days of 1918, she participated in the founding of the German Communist Party, KPD. However, the radical forces of the left failed to overcome the reformist tendency of the Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert.

On January 15, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and her co-leader Karl Liebknecht are killed in Berlin by soldiers who were suppressing the uprising, and their bodies were thrown into a canal. The murders unleash a wave of violent protests throughout the country which lasted until May 1919, and whose repression by the military resulted in several thousand deaths.

Democratic socialism

“Without general elections, without freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, without the unrestricted clash of opinions, life in every public institution withers away, becomes a caricature of itself, and bureaucracy rises as the only deciding factor. Public life begins to slumber, a few dozen party leaders with inexhaustible energy and limitless idealisms direct and rule, while below are a dozen outstanding minds who really lead, plus an elite of workers, summoned to the assemblies from time to time to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to unanimously approve the resolutions presented, in other words, basically, a society of cliques – in fact, a dictatorship, although not the dictatorship of the proletariat, but the dictatorship of a handful of politicians – a dictatorship in the pure bourgeois sense, in the sense of the dominion of the Jacobins… This is a predominant, objective law, a law from which no political party can escape.”

Rosa Luxemburg


For Rosa Luxemburg, socialism was not a service for others or the gift of a political party to the oppressed and exploited. In her opinion, socialist politics and socialism had to emerge from the joint, voluntary and conscious movement of all the disadvantaged. In 1904 she wrote that this movement was “the first in the history of class societies to be conceived in all its phases, in all its development, on the basis of the organization and direct and independent action of the masses.” She accepted professional politicians and political parties solely as that part of the movement responsible for organization and political education.


With the increasing aggressiveness of German militarism, as well as the wars over a new partition of the world, and, above all, with the breaking out World War in 1914, the question of peace acquired special importance. For Rosa Luxemburg, the socialist society to which she aspired was deeply peaceful. She conceived of it as a form of human coexistence in which all causes of war and barbarism would be eliminated. It was also her deep yearning for peace that motivated Rosa Luxemburg to fight for socialism with all her might.

Rosa Luxemburg did not pretend the use of physical force against oppressive and exploitative elements:

“The proletarian revolution does not require terror in order to achieve its objectives; it hates and repudiates murder. It does not need these instruments of struggle, because it does not fight against individuals but against institutions, because it does not enter combat with naive illusions whose frustration it would have to avenge with blood. It is not a desperate attempt by a minority to mold the world to its ideal through violence, but the action of the great mass of the people…”

As Marx, she understood ‘social restructuring’ to be the overthrow of all conditions “in which the human being is a humiliated, subjugated, abandoned and despised being”. She sought to achieve this social restructuring by means of a permanent struggle for hegemony, with whose help she hoped to achieve the sustainable transformation of the power relations within society. In this way she hoped to not only accomplish the expropriation of the expropriators, but to make the social landscape lastingly inhospitable to exploitation and oppression. She considered this the right way to overcome capitalism. She rejected any act of terror against the owners of capital and, instead, promoted a socialism supported by the majority of the disadvantaged, a socialism which would not be attractive to a new emergence of capitalism.

For Rosa Luxemburg, the struggle for hegemony was a permanent struggle for the approval and support of qualified majorities. This was one of the reasons why for her, freedom and democracy were not luxuries to be granted or denied at the discretion of socialist politicians, but the basic condition of all socialist politics:

“Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party – though they be quite numerous – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively the freedom of the dissidents. Not because of a passion for ‘justice’, but because everything vital, beneficial and purifying about political liberty depends on this characteristic, and disappears if ‘freedom’ becomes a privilege.”