Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland and moved to Germany, where she became a German citizen. She joined the Social Democratic Party, which was one of the oldest Marxist parties in history.
Coming from Poland, many of her early writings were about the nationalist movement, and how a nationalist liberation movement, while in theory should be supported, would actually be a step back for the people of Poland.
When she joined the Party, the leadership was committed to using parliamentary methods. Leadership had mostly given up on preparing workers for the revolution, as they felt that conditions were not right for militant action. Luxemburg was critical of this tendency and wrote about how important it was for Marxist groups to pay closer attention to the workers.
Listening to the Movement
Luxemburg developed a unique approach to Marxism. She argued that society cannot change by only pushing reforms through the Parliament, but came from the working class. She emphasized how important Mass Strikes and Worker-run organizations were to changing things on the ground. Her analysis was not an instruction for the working class, but a description of how different classes were confronting each other. She urged her comrades to hear the voices coming from the masses, varied as they were, and aid them in the ultimate revolutionary struggle.
Organizing against Imperialist Wars
Luxemburg applied her approach to different issues of the day. Most famously was how she approached the problem of war. Luxemburg pointed out how the wars of the early twentieth century were wars of imperialist expansion. They used the working class as soldiers, and imperialism only benefited the capitalist class. Here, she saw an opportunity. The soldiers could be organized the same way workers could, and aid in protecting the workers.
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Revolution by the people, of the people, for the people
Luxemburg said that as people organized themselves on the ground, either to protest against the powerful or by taking control of institutions on the ground, they would organically develop systems that would be democratic and accountable. The act of organizing is a self-teaching process. People learn by taking matters into their own hands. When they run things on their own, they learn by practice. Even the most well-meaning law would come from above and cut short the essential learning needed for people to take matters into their own hands.
When Luxemburg tried to push the Social Democratic Party to be more involved on the ground, the leaders replied by saying that conditions were not ripe for people to become so militant.
The Spartacus League
When World War I broke out, many members of the Social Democratic Party opposed Germany going into the war, but the Party officially supported the war. Many members felt that the Party betrayed the working class by supporting Germany’s imperialist designs. Luxemburg, with Karl Liebknecht, a member of Parliament from the Social Democratic Party, formed a new organization, the Spartacus League.
The Spartacus League was named after the leader of the great slave revolt in ancient Rome, Spartacus. The Spartacus League campaigned against Germany’s participation in the war, which caused its newspaper to be banned in Germany. Members of the League would spend their time organizing workers and going to jail for their anti-war efforts.
Fighting the Spartacus League: The Friekorps
In 1918, the German government began to organize soldiers who returned from the war but felt alienated from their communities. These veteran soldiers were usually resentful of their home communities, who were spared the horrors of war. The state-directed their anger towards those who opposed the war. They called the soldiers the Friekorps (the Free Corps), after the German nationalists who defended Germany from British and French invaders in the past. The soldiers were charged with defending Germany from internal enemies. German defeats in World War I would be used to drive their passions against anti-war agitators, like Rosa Luxemburg, and other communists who would defend the weak and poor in Germany. They felt that traditional order was being threatened by communists like Luxemburg who preached liberal values, internationalism, and agitation against oppression.
November Revolution and the Spartacus Uprising
In November 1918, Luxemburg led the Spartacus League in what is now called the November Revolution. This revolution was driven by Germany’s losses in World War I and was supported by returning soldiers who identified with the worker’s movement. The movement included many ground-level worker’s movements who established Worker’s Councils in their factories. These Councils would take over the management of the factory and would be run democratically by the workers. The movement led to something called “Double-rule” where a revolutionary movement would control things on the ground, while the elite state would enforce its will from above. Opposition came from even old comrades in the Social Democratic Party, who were unwilling to break ties with the German Parliament.
At the beginning of January 1919, a groundswell movement came up again. A General Strike took over Germany. Nearly five lakh people participated. The Spartacus League took part, and the movement demanded that Germany abandon its Parliament and give way to a Republic run by the workers. The Worker’s Councils that had been built would run the government.
The uprising was brutally suppressed when the state called in 3,000 members of the Friekorps to crush the rebellion. Though outnumbered, the Friekorps were heavily armed. They captured Luxemburg and Liebknecht in the evening of 15 January. Liebknecht was driven out and assassinated, while Luxemburg was beaten up by the Friekorps. She was taken outside, shot in the back of her head and her body was thrown in the river.
Final Words of Luxemburg
Even in her last moments, Luxemburg declared that the revolution could not be stopped. Just one day before, when it was clear that the Friekorps would crush the uprising, she wrote:
How does the defeat of “Spartacus week” appear in the light of the above historical question? Was it a case of raging, uncontrollable revolutionary energy colliding with an insufficiently ripe situation, or was it a case of weak and indecisive action?
Both! The crisis had a dual nature. The contradiction between the powerful, decisive, aggressive offensive of the Berlin masses on the one hand and the indecisive, half-hearted vacillation of the Berlin leadership on the other is the mark of this latest episode. The leadership failed. But a new leadership can and must be created by the masses and from the masses. The masses are the crucial factor. They are the rock on which the ultimate victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were up to the challenge, and out of this “defeat”, they have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. That is why future victories will spring from this “defeat.”
“Order prevails in Berlin!” You foolish lackeys! Your “order” is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will “rise up again, clashing its weapons,” and to your horror, it will proclaim with trumpets blazing:
“I was, I am, I shall be”
The author is a mathematician and a political observer based in Bangalore. He would like to thank Ramdas Rao for his helpful comments and feedback.