Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary Life

This article is excerpted from Rosa Remix, a collection of essays on the work of Rosa Luxemburg and its relevance to contemporary political debates, forthcoming from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. RLS is hosting a New York launch event for the book on September 8. 

1906- rosa luxemburg in warsaw prison- iisg- high res

Rozalia Luxenburg was born on March 5, 1871, in the small Polish city of Zamość, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Róża, or Rosa, was the youngest of five children and the Luxenburgs were part of Zamość’s large Jewish community. Rosa’s parents, Edward and Lina, were among the wealthier section of the population and were both well-educated. Rosa’s father was a merchant and had studied in both Warsaw and Berlin, while her mother spoke at least three languages (Yiddish, Polish, and German) and was descended from a prominent rabbinical family. The Luxenburgs spoke Polish at home and were strongly influenced by the haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment. They considered themselves to be “Poles of the Mosaic faith” and raised their children as patriotic Poles. Nevertheless, the family remained firmly part of the Jewish community and played an active role in it.

When Rosa was two years old, her family moved to Warsaw, the bustling center of Polish (and Polish-Jewish) life. She was raised in a tightly-knit, loving family with whom she maintained close relations throughout her life, especially with her siblings: Anna (a teacher), Mikołaj (a businessman who emigrated to England), Maxymilian (a businessman), and Józef (a doctor). Despite a hip ailment which left her with a permanent limp, Rosa had a happy childhood surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors. Nevertheless, she was deeply affected by the everyday injustices and inequalities in the Russian Empire under Tsar Alexander III. Tsarist Russia was an autocratic state which suppressed political, intellectual, cultural, and national freedom. After the failed 1863 Polish national rising (in which Rosa’s father participated), a vigorous policy of “Russification” was imposed on the Poles, suppressing their language, culture, and autonomy. At the same time, existing anti-Semitic policies were expanded. In 1881, Warsaw was the scene of a violent pogrom which shook the city’s Jewish population. As a Pole, a Jew, and a woman in the Russian Empire, Rosa felt keenly the restrictions, limitations, and prejudices which surrounded her.

Like many Poles of her class and generation, Rosa became involved in anti-Tsarist circles as a student. A romantic revolutionary, she once wrote in a letter to a friend that her perfect society was one which “allows one to love everybody with a clear conscience. Striving after it, defending it, I may perhaps even learn to hate.” Around the same time, she wrote an angry poem which concluded “I want all the sufferings / all the hidden, bitter tears / to burden the consciences of the affluent / [and] to pay them back for everything with terrible revenge.” From a young age, Rosa’s compassion for the poor and exploited was accompanied by a deep loathing for the rich and powerful. Both remained with her throughout her life. After graduating from school, Rosa joined a revolutionary socialist group in Warsaw which was soon repressed by the authorities. In early 1889, she joined the familiar trail of Polish revolutionaries and left her homeland for exile in Switzerland, where she joined her older brother Józef at Zurich University.


In Switzerland, Rosa studied, worked, and lived alongside her fellow east European émigrés. Soon after her arrival, she began a romantic and political relationship with Leo Jogiches, a wealthy Jewish revolutionary from Lithuania. It was at this time that she adopted a new spelling of her name—Rosa Luxemburg. She and Jogiches worked in close collaboration for the rest of their lives and co-founded a new political party, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP) in 1893. The SDKP was an internationalist Marxist group which opposed all attempts at regaining Polish independence from the three occupying powers which had partitioned Poland at the end of the eighteenth century
—Austria, Germany, and Russia. Instead, the SDKP strove for international working class solidarity and saw the future for Poland as part of a multi-national European socialist state. Rosa Luxemburg represented her party at congresses of the Socialist International, the body which brought together various socialist parties from across the globe, and she edited the party newspaper in Switzerland and Paris. In 1897, she was awarded
a doctorate in Zurich for a thesis on the industrial development of Poland, in which she set out her argument that Poland had been economically incorporated by the three occupying empires, making the struggle for independence anti-historical and doomed to failure. The following year, she arranged a marriage-of-convenience with a German émigré to obtain a German passport and moved promptly to Berlin.

 Socialism, Revolution, and Mass Strike

Launching herself into the German labor movement (at that time the strongest in the world), Luxemburg soon made a name for herself as a radical and determined opponent of attempts to “revise” Marxism by socialists like Eduard Bernstein. She remained committed to the goal of socialist revolution and viewed “reformists” and “revisionists” as misguided at best and traitors to the socialist movement at worst. Writing to Leo Jogiches, Luxemburg explained that she wanted to “affect people like a clap of thunder […] not by speechifying but with the breadth of my vision, the strength of my conviction, and the power of my expression.” Collecting her ideas, Luxemburg produced a series of articles which were later published as Social Reform or Revolution? Over the next few years, Luxemburg became a leading figure on the left of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) and developed close relationships with party leaders including Karl Kautsky, August Bebel, and Clara Zetkin. At the same time, she remained the leading theorist of the Polish party which, following a merger with its Lithuanian counterpart at the turn of the
century, became the SDKPiL.

In 1905, a revolution swept across the Russian Empire, including Luxemburg’s native Poland. For her, it was the realization of a dream nurtured since youth. For most of that year, Luxemburg acted as a popularizer and proponent of the revolution in the German socialist press and called on German workers to adopt “Russian methods”—including the mass strike, as she outlined in The Mass Strike, the Party and the Trade Unions (1906). At the end of 1905, when the revolution was still raging in Russia and Poland, Luxemburg returned to her native Warsaw and spent three months participating in the revolution alongside her old comrades, including Leo Jogiches, as well as spending time with her family. Luxemburg and Jogiches were arrested by Tsarist police and imprisoned in the infamous Warsaw Citadel. As a result of her high profile status in Germany, Luxemburg was released after a few months and allowed to return to Berlin, while Jogiches was sentenced to Siberian exile.

Teacher, Journalist, and Activist

From 1906 until 1914, Rosa Luxemburg lived and worked in Berlin, where she taught at the SPD Party School, wrote for the socialist press, and produced a number of important Marxist studies. She remained a leading figure on the left-wing of the SPD, whilst at the same time remaining deeply involved in Polish affairs. In 1913, she produced arguably her most important work, The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism, a study which built on a perceived problem found in volume two of Karl Marx’s Capital. Luxemburg argued that capitalism was bound to expand into non-capitalist territories in order to survive and that once these territories were exhausted (or rather, before that moment) capitalism would be plunged into crisis and collapse. In response to criticism of her work, Luxemburg subsequently published an Anti-Critique in 1915.

During these years, Luxemburg was increasingly preoccupied with imperialism and the threat of a world war, predicting a global crisis which would offer only two roads: leading either to socialism or barbarism. She was among the authors of the “Stuttgart Resolution” at the International Socialist Congress held in that city in 1907, in which European socialist leaders promised to campaign against war and to hasten the downfall of capitalism and autocracy. In 1913, Luxemburg made a powerful speech calling on German workers to refuse to shoot their French or British brothers in the event of war. For this, she was put on trial and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Her conduct at the trial made her a heroine of the German left: when labelled a flight risk by the prosecutor she responded defiantly “Sir, I believe you, you would run away; a social democrat does not. He stands by his deeds and laughs at your judgements. And now sentence me!”

The First World War

At the outbreak of war in summer 1914, the German SPD—like its counterparts in France, Britain, and elsewhere—decided to support their national government and the war effort. For the minority of socialists who retained the pre-war position and opposed the war, it was a lonely and dispiriting time. Rosa Luxemburg fleetingly consid-ered suicide in protest against her party’s position but instead quickly began forming the tiny anti-war Gruppe Internationale (which later evolved into the Spartacus League), which gathered in her Berlin flat and attempted to issue pamphlets and messages to sympathizers. She engaged in these anti-war activities with pre-war comrades like Clara Zetkin, Franz Mehring, and Leo Jogiches, as well as the radical socialist parliamentarian Karl Liebknecht, and all of them suffered isolation, persecution, and imprisonment as a result. From February 1915 to February 1916, and again from July 1916 until the end of war, Luxemburg was incarcerated. From her cell, she followed the news, wrote letters to friends and comrades, and produced a number of works, including the anti-war Junius Pamphlet (1915) in which she proclaimed “War is methodical, organized, gigantic murder.” Still in prison in early 1917, Luxemburg welcomed the February Revolution in Russia and offered critical support to the Bolsheviks following their seizure of power that October. In August 1918, she completed The Russian Revolution, a critique of the Bolsheviks which challenged their land and nationality policies, the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, and Lenin and Trotsky’s suppression of democracy and of their opponents. In this work (which was not published until 1922), Luxemburg wrote her most famous line: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively the freedom for the one who thinks differently” and wrote prophetically:

“Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule […] a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians.”

The German Revolution

In November 1918, the German war effort collapsed and a revolution swept the country, overthrowing Kaiser Wilhelm II and leading to the declaration of a republic. Rosa Luxemburg was released from prison, like all political prisoners, and returned to Berlin immediately to set to work. During autumn 1918, she and Karl Liebknecht led the small Spartacus League as a radical faction within the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which had split from the SPD in 1917. Governmental power was handed to the Social Democrats, and under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert (a former pupil of Luxemburg’s) the Armistice was signed, ending the war after four long years of bloodshed. Ebert’s government had the support of most Germans, as well as of the army, navy, and the majority of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils which were being formed across the country. Initially, Ebert was also supported by the USPD, with only the Spartacus League opposing the government from the left. Luxemburg and her comrades called for the deepening and widening of the revolution, arguing in favour of nationalization, the arming of the workers, the removal of pre-revolutionary civil servants and military leaders, and support for Bolshevik Russia.

On New Year’s Eve, 1918, the Spartacus League finally split from the USPD and formed a new party, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), under the leadership of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Less than a week later, armed fighting broke out in Berlin. On one side stood the government of Ebert and special divisions of soldiers loyal to it (known as freikorps) and on the other side stood armed demonstrators sympathetic to various left-wing groups including the USPD, the revolutionary shop stewards, and the KPD. After several days of heavy fighting, the “Spartacist Uprising”—as it was dubbed by the government and the press—was crushed. On 15 January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested and interrogated by government forces before being brutally murdered. Luxemburg’s body was dumped in a canal, not to be recovered until six months later. Her last words, written the night before her murder, were “Order reigns in Berlin! You stupid lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. The revolution will raise itself up again clashing, and to your horror it will proclaim to the sound of trumpets: I was, I am, I shall be.” The anniversary of the murder became an annual left-wing mass demonstration, which it remains to this day.


Rosa Luxemburg was the most important theorist of both the German and Polish communist movements, despite the perversion and distortion of her ideas by Communists after her death, especially during Stalin’s reign. And yet she was so much more than this. She was a keen botanist, a lover of literature and culture (she translated Vladimir Korolenko’s autobiography in her prison cell), and a beloved sister, aunt, friend, and lover. Luxemburg’s life and thought have inspired a broad range of individuals, groups, and
movements throughout the twentieth century. and her ideas about socialism and capitalism, democracy and dictatorship, war and peace, nationalism, imperialism, and women’s rights continue to be relevant and stimulating in the 21st century. Luxemburg’s ideas have outlived the Soviet experiment in Russia and Eastern Europe and she continues to be both revered and reviled in Germany long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her writings, theories, and ideas are studied and discussed on every continent. At the time of writing the third volume of the English-language Complete Works is being prepared for publication and there are plans afoot in Beijing for a ground-breaking Chinese version. Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas—and sometimes merely the mention of her name—continue to provoke, to inspire, and to challenge “like a clap of thunder.” This is surely what she would have wished for.

Rory Castle was awarded a PhD by Swansea University for a thesis on Rosa Luxemburg (2016), is co-editing the fourth volume of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, and is editor of

Come by the RLS NYC office on September 8 for the release of Rosa Remix. Free copies of the book will be available for all in attendance.


About rosaluxemburgblog

I was awarded a PhD in History by Swansea University for a thesis on Rosa Luxemburg (2016). I am currently co-editing the fourth volume of 'The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg' and am a member of the Advisory Board of the International Rosa Luxemburg Society.
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