By Becci Heagney, Socialist Alternative (ISA in Britain)

In January 1919, after a failed uprising led by the newly-formed German Communist Party, Rosa Luxemburg refused to leave Berlin despite the real threats against her; she didn’t want to leave her fellow workers who were experiencing counter-revolutionary repression. The Freikorps (paramilitary units) were sent to remove the ‘head of the beast’ – the revolutionary masses – by executing their influential leaders, including Luxemburg.

Under the orders of the so-called Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Friedrich Ebert, Luxemburg was beaten and shot, her body thrown into the canal with rocks attached. It serves as a tragic lesson for Marxists that different approaches can become a life and death question for the working class as a whole. What took place after 1918-19, followed by other mistakes, was the smashing of the working class by fascism and the horrors of the Nazi regime. 

Personal struggle and theoretical contribution

At the age of just 17, Rosa Luxemburg was a founding member of the social democratic party in her native Poland. Alongside Lenin, she moved the amendment at the 1907 Stuttgart conference which underlined the need for Marxists to oppose war, fight against the capitalist class in all countries and lead the working class to power. In Germany, she taught Marxist economics and quickly became a leading theoretician in the SPD, while regularly being arrested and imprisoned for her political activity. 

The years that Luxemburg lived through were some of the most important and tumultuous for revolutionaries in history. The Second International – made up of social democratic parties across the world – was built and then destroyed in her lifetime. The German SPD was the biggest and most influential, with over 1 million members. But on the eve of WWI, the various parties supported their ‘own’ national capitalist class in the war, going against the most basic ideas of workers’ internationalism. This betrayal led to a worldwide split between reformists and revolutionaries. 

Luxemburg founded the Spartacus League within the SPD in opposition to the war and eventually split in 1917, forming the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). Coming late to understanding the need to organise a revolutionary party similar to the Bolshevik party in Russia was one of the biggest mistakes Luxemburg made. 

However, it’s easy to have sympathy with the position that Luxemburg was in. She was worried that the revolutionaries would be cutting themselves off from the mass of the working class. Because of her experience of sharp debate within the SPD, against the revisionism of Eduard Bernstein and then against the reformism of Karl Kautsky, Luxemburg maybe had more illusions in the idea of having the ear of the working class within the SPD. Had Luxemburg organised a revolutionary tendency within the SPD earlier and on a clearer basis, this could have won the best and most class conscious workers and, in turn, could have had a bigger impact on the events of 1918-1919.

Development of ideas 

Luxemburg was constantly discussing and developing her ideas. She argued ferociously against a narrow electoralist approach, correctly pointing to the need for the mass and conscious involvement of the working class in the changing of society, through workers’ councils and through ‘political general strikes’. She also argued against the anarchistic ideas of separating the trade unions from the political parties of the working class.

However, Luxemburg put too much emphasis on the ‘spontaneity’ of the masses and the development of class consciousness. The working class can move into struggle because of the crisis of capitalism, which itself impacts consciousness and can lead workers to draw socialist conclusions. But, without a revolutionary party organising this and giving it political expression, this impetus for change can be lost, as it was in 1918. Luxemburg partly acknowledged this but wasn’t able to draw the corresponding organisational conclusions in time. She said: “Without the conscious will and the conscious activity of the majority of the proletariat, there can be no socialism. A class organisation is needed to sharpen this consciousness, to organise this activity: the parliament of the proletarians of town and country.”

In her most famous work, Reform or Revolution?, she argued for the necessity of Marxists to fight for both as the only way to build a party which was rooted in the working class, but that it would also be necessary to also fight against any illusions that capitalism would be able to provide lasting reforms. 

The successful revolution in Russia in 1917 had a huge effect on Luxemburg and she put all of her energies into fighting for a similar overthrow of capitalism in Germany, committed to the idea of international socialism. Had she not been murdered in 1919, she would have continued to play an extremely valuable role in the revolutionary events to come. We stand on her shoulders today, learning from her life and ideas – including her mistakes – and taking inspiration from her devotion to the struggle for socialism.