Rosa Luxemburg — Feminist, Philosopher, and Revolutionary

“History is the only true teacher, the revolution the best school for the proletariat.” — Rosa Luxemburg


Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist, anti-war activist, and revolutionary socialist who became a naturalized German citizen at the age of 28. She was, successively, in the Polish Social Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Labour Party of Germany, the Independent Social Democratic Party, the Internationale Group, the Spartacus League, and the Communist Party of Germany.

Born on March 5, 1871 in Zamoshc of Congress Poland, Rosa Luxemburg was born into a Jewish family, the youngest of five children. In 1889, at 18 years old, Luxemburg’s revolutionary agitation forced her to move to Zürich, Switzerland, to escape imprisonment. While in Zürich, Luxemburg continued her revolutionary activities from abroad, while studying political economy and law. She received her doctorate in 1898. She also met with many Russian Social Democrats, at a time before the R.S.D.L.P. split. Among the men she met were some of the early leading members of the party. This included both Georgy Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod.

It was not long before Luxemburg voiced sharp theoretical differences with the Russian party, primarily over the issue of Polish self-determination. Luxemburg believed that self-determination weakened the international Socialist movement, and helped only the bourgeoisie to strengthen their rule over newly independent nations. Luxemburg split with both the Russian and Polish Socialist Party over this issue, who believed in the rights of Russian national minorities to self-determination. In opposition, Luxemburg helped create the Polish Social Democratic Party.

During this time, Luxemburg met her life-long companion Leo Jogiches, who was head of the Polish Socialist Party. While Luxemburg was the speaker and theoretician of the party, Jogiches also complimented her as the organizer of the party. The two developed an intense personal and political relationship throughout the rest of their lives.

Luxemburg left Zürich for Berlin in 1898, and joined the German Social Democractic Labour Party. Quickly after joining the party, Luxemburg’s most vibrant revolutionary agitation and writings began to form. Expressing the central issues of debate in the German Social Democracy at the time, she wrote Reform or Revolution in 1900; against Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism of Marxist theory. Luxemburg explained:

  • “His theory tends to counsel us to renounce the social transformation, the final goal of Social-Democracy and, inversely, to make of social reforms, the means of the class struggle, its aim. Bernstein himself has very clearly and characteristically formulated this viewpoint when he wrote: “The Final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.”

While Luxemburg supported reformist activity, as the means of class struggle, the aim of these reforms was a complete revolution. She stressed that endless reforms would continually support the ruling bourgeois, long past the time a proletarian revolution could have begun to build a Socialist society. Luxemburg, along with Karl Kautsky, helped to prevent this revisionism of Marxist theory in the German Socialist party.

By the 1905 Revolution in Russia, Luxemburg refocused her attention to the Socialist movement in the Russian Empire, explaining the great movement the Russian proletariat had begun:

  • “For on this day the Russian proletariat burst on the political stage as a class for the first time; for the first time the only power which historically is qualified and able to cast Tsarism into the dustbin and to raise the banner of civilization in Russia and everywhere has appeared on the scene of action.”

Luxemburg stood by the Marxist theory of the Russian proletariat leading a Socialist revolution; in opposition to the Russian Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary parties, but in support of the Bolshevik party. Luxemburg moved to Warsaw to aid the Russian revolutionary uprising, and was imprisoned for her activities.

In 1906, Luxemburg began to strongly advocate her theory of ‘The Mass Strike’ as the most important revolutionary weapon of the proletariat. This continual drive became a major point of contention in the German Social Democratic party, primarily opposed by August Bebel and Karl Kautsky. For such passionate and relentless agitation, Luxemburg earned the nickname “Bloody Rosa.”

Before the first World War, Luxemburg wrote The Accumulation of Capital, in 1913; a work explaining the capitalist movement towards imperialism. With the beginning of World War I, Luxemburg stood ardently against the German Social Democratic Parties’ social chauvinistic stand; supporting German aggression and annexations of other nations. Allied with Karl Liebknecht, Luxemburg left the Social Democractic party, and helped form the Internationale Group, which soon became the Spartacus League, in opposition of Socialist national chauvinism, agitating instead that German soldiers turn their weapons against their own government and overthrow it.

For this revolutionary agitation, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested and imprisoned. While in prison, Luxemburg wrote the Junius Pamphlet, which became the theoretical foundation of the Spartacus League. Also while in prison, Luxemburg wrote on the Russian Revolution, most famously in her book, The Russian Revolution, where she warns of what she felt were the overly dictatorial powers of the Bolshevik party. Everyone must keep in mind, however, that she very much supported the Bolsheviks over the counter-revolutionary actions of the Mensheviks. Here, Luxemburg explains her views on the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat:

  • “Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class — that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.”

While Luxemburg attacked the Soviet government being dominated by the strong hand of the Bolshevik party, she recognized the Civil War that was raging through Russia and the present need for such a government:

  • “It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions. The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.”

Luxemburg later opposed the newly formed Soviet government’s efforts to come to Peace on all fronts, by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany.

In November of 1918, the German government reluctantly released Luxemburg from prison, whereupon she immediately began again with her favorite activity, revolutionary agitation. A month later, Luxemburg and Liebknecht founded the German Communist Party, while armed conflicts were raging in the streets of Berlin in support of the Spartacus League.

On January 15, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Wilhelm Pieck; the leaders of the German Communist Party, were arrested and taken in for questioning at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin. While what happened is not known, save for the last sentence, one account is that they were told they were to be relocated; members of the right-wing German militia Freikorps, under orders from the Social-Democrat led government, escorted Luxemburg and Liebknecht out of the building, knocking them unconscious as they left. Pieck managed to escape, while the unconscious bodies of Luxemburg and Liebknecht were quietly driven away in a German military jeep. They were shot, and their bodies were dumped into the Landwehr Canal in Kreuzberg. Luxemburg was only forty-seven.

The night before she died Luxemburg penned her famous last words:

  • “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!”

With the finest leaders of the German Communist movement murdered, the gates were opened for fascism to rise against much weaker opposition standing in its way.

The Proletarian Woman

Economically and socially, the women of the exploiting classes do not make up an independent stratum of the population. They perform a social function merely as instruments of natural reproduction for the ruling classes. The women of the proletariat, on the contrary, are independent economically; they are engaged in productive work for society just as the men are. Not in the sense that they help the men by their housework, scraping out a daily living and raising children for meager compensation. This work is not productive within the meaning of the present economic system of capitalism, even though it entails an immense expenditure of energy and self-sacrifice in a thousand little tasks. This is only the private concern of the proletarians, their blessing and felicity, and precisely for this reason nothing but empty air as far as modern society is concerned. Only that work is productive which produces surplus value and yields capitalist profit — as long as the rule of capital and the wage system still exists. From this standpoint the dancer in a cafe, who makes a profit for her employer with her legs, is a productive working-woman, while all the toil of the woman and mothers of the proletariat within the four walls of the home is considered unproductive work. This sounds crude and crazy but it is an accurate expression of the crudeness and craziness of today’s capitalist economic order; and to understand this crude reality clearly and sharply is the first necessity for the proletarian woman.

For it is precisely from this standpoint that the working-women’s claim to political equality is now firmly anchored to a solid economic base. Millions of proletarian women today produce capitalist profit just like men — in factories, workshops, agriculture, homework industries, offices and stores. They are productive, therefore, in the strictest economic sense of society today. Every day, the multitude of women exploited by capitalism grows; every new advance in industry and technology makes more room for women in the machinery of capitalist profit-making. And thus every day and every industrial advance lays another stone in the solid foundation on which the political ‘equality of women rests. The education and intellectual development of women has now become necessary for the economic machine itself. Today the narrowly circumscribed and unwordly woman of the old patriarchal ‘domestic hearth’ is as useless for the demands of large-scale industry and trade as for the requirements of political life. In this respect too, certainly, the capitalist state has neglected its duties. Up to now it is the trade-union and Social-Democratic organizations that have done most and done best for the intellectual and moral awakening and education of women. Just as for decades now the Social-Democrats have been known as the most capable and intelligent workers, so today it is by Social-Democracy and the trade unions that the women of the proletariat have been raised out of the stifling atmosphere of their circumscribed existence, out of the miserable vapidness and pettiness of household management. The proletarian class struggle has widened their horizons, expanded their intellectual life, developed their mental capacities, and given them great goals to strive for. Socialism has brought about the spiritual rebirth of the mass of proletarian women, and in the process has also doubtless made them competent as productive workers for capital.

After all this, the political disenfranchisement of proletarian women is all the baser an injustice because it has already become partly false. Women already take part in political life anyway, actively and in large numbers. Nevertheless, the Social-Democracy does not carry on the fight with the argument of ‘injustice’. The basic difference between us and the sentimental Utopian socialism of earlier times lies in the fact that we base ourselves not on the justice of the ruling classes but solely on the revolutionary power of the working masses and on the process of economic development which is the foundation of that power. Thus, injustice in itself is certainly not an argument for overthrowing reactionary institutions. When wide circles of society are seized by a sense of injustice — says Friedrich Engels, the co-founder of scientific socialism — it is always a sure sign that far-reaching shifts have taken place in the economic basis of society, and that the existing order of things has already come into contradiction with the ongoing process of development. The present powerful movement of millions of proletarian women who feel their political disenfranchisement to be a crying injustice is just such an unmistakable sign that the social foundations of the existing state are already rotten and that its days are numbered.

One of the first great heralds of the socialist ideal, the Frenchman Charles Fourier, wrote these thought-provoking words a hundred years ago:

  • “In every society the degree of female emancipation (freedom) is the natural measure of emancipation in general.”

This applies perfectly to society today. The contemporary mass struggle for the political equality of women is only one expression and one part of the general liberation struggle of the proletariat, and therein lies its strength and its future. General, equal and direct suffrage for women will — thanks to the female proletariat — immeasurably advance and sharpen the proletarian class struggle. That is why bourgeois society detests and fears women’s suffrage, and that is why we want to win it and will win it. And through the struggle for women’s suffrage we will hasten the hour when the society of today will be smashed to bits under the hammer blows of the revolutionary proletariat.


Rosa Luxemburg was a prolific writer. Her list of titles of includes, The Industrial Development of Poland, 1898, In Defense of Nationality, 1900, Reform or Revolution, 1900, The Socialist Crisis in France, 1901, Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy, 1904, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, 1906, The National Question, 1909, Theory & Practice, 1910, The Accumulation of Capital, 1913, The Accumulation of Capital: An Anti-Critique, 1915, The Junius Pamphlet, 1915, and The Russian Revolution, 1918. The two works that are most remembered for their effect are Reform or Revolution and The Accumulation of Capital.

In Reform or Revolution, Luxemburg’s central thesis is that trade unions, reformist political parties and the expansion of social democracy, while important to the proletariat’s development of class consciousness, cannot create a socialist society as Eduard Bernstein, among others, argued. Instead, she argued, from a historical materialist perspective, that capitalism is economically unsustainable and will eventually collapse and that a revolution is necessary to transform capitalism into socialism.

The Accumulation of Capital was a book length project on economics, and the only work in economics that Luxemburg would every publish. In her central thesis, she argued that capitalism needs to constantly expand into non-capitalist areas in order to access new supply sources, markets for surplus value, and reservoirs of labor. According to Luxemburg, Marx had made an error in Capital in that the proletariat could not afford to buy the commodities they produced, and therefore by his own criteria it was impossible for capitalists to make a profit in a closed-capitalist system since the demand for commodities would be too low, and therefore much of the value of commodities could not be transformed into money. Therefore, according to Luxemburg, capitalists sought to realize profits through offloading surplus commodities onto non-capitalist economies, hence the phenomenon of imperialism as capitalist states sought to dominate weaker economies. This, however, lead to the destruction of non-capitalist economies as they were increasingly absorbed into the capitalist system. With the destruction of non-capitalist economies, however, there would be no more markets to offload surplus commodities onto, and capitalism would eventually break down.

Ultimate Legacy

Luxemburg, like countless other brave men and women of the revolutionary era in which she lived, most of whom left no trace, dedicated her life to a cause that, for a brief time, opened up the promise of an entirely different world. As we face our own era of crisis and revolt, we would do well to follow her ever defiant advice:

  • “Our task now is simply to counteract these authorities, who have become all rusted over, with protests that will be as rough and brusque as possible.”