Who was Rosa Luxemburg?

You might be forgiven for thinking that a bushy beard was an essential requirement for all socialist thinkers in the 19th century. However an exception had to be made in the case of one socialisms greatest thinkers, Rosa Luxemburg.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamość, Russia of Polish-Jewish parents in 1871. The city of Zamość was a significant Jewish centre, first established in 1580 by Sephardic Jews coming from Italy and Spain. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah (השכלה‎) brought a flowering of Jewish intellectualism and integration with the secular world. This in turn lead to the creation of a number of Jewish political movements during the struggle for the Jewish Emancipation. It was this Jewish civil rights movement which lead thousands of Jews throughout Europe, including Rosa Luxemburg to become involved in the broader socialist and humanist movements that began with the Chartist Revolts and the publication of the Communist Manifesto.

It is hard to appreciate now what a beacon Teutonic culture was in the 19th century, but for Jews especially, nascent Germany represented progress. Heavily influenced by Marxist thought and the worker's struggles there, Rosa began working toward sparking a Polish revolution as a very young woman. She cut her teeth at age 17 as a member of the left-wing Proletarian Party in Poland, helping to organise a General Strike. For this, four members of her party received the death penalty. With the authorities closing in, Rosa eventually fled to Zurich, Switzerland, where she studied political economics and the humanities.

In Poland, Rosa founded “The Worker's Cause”, a newspaper in opposition to the Polish Socialist Party, which had fallen into nationalistic policies. Nationalism would be the bane of Rosa's existence, as throughout Europe in the 1890's, the bourgeoisie embarked on a renewed program of nation-building and industrial development, in conflict with the new internationalism of the rising working class.

It was this conflict which in part prompted Rosa to write so prolifically. In the course of addressing what she saw as the co-option of socialism by nationalism, Rosa was compelled to dig deep into Marxist philosophy, and develop a cogent theory to explain and reveal plainly how the intrusions of many seemingly innocent “revisions” of Marxism could lead inexorably to the destruction of the Revolution.

Two of her greatest works illustrate this; her attack on the reformer Eduard Bernstein, “Social Reform or Revolution” in 1899, and “The Accumulation of Capital” in 1913. It is these two works for which Rosa is best remembered.

“Social Reform or Revolution” challenged the notion that the object of the socialist revolution could be achieved not by the violent overthrow of capitalism, as originally posited by Marx and Engels, but by a progressive series of fundamental social reforms. Eduard Bernstein's ideas were seized upon by the bourgeoisie and many liberal thinkers as a means of warding off the threat of revolution that was breaking out in the late 19th century. In the crudest terms, the bourgeoisie could simply buy off the working classes with reforms, in a kind of fighting retreat. Luxemburg argued however that while reforms were welcome, and indeed essential, no series of reforms, no matter how profound could substitute for the elimination of capitalism itself. For unless it was eliminated completely, capitalism would inevitably rise again and reverse all of these well-meaning reforms while the working classes slept.

Bernstein's policy turned out to be highly effective, and Rosa's arguments against it were prescient. The revolutions in Europe were successfully defused. The results for Europe were, as predicted, terrible in the extreme, because with the domestication of socialism, conditions were ameliorated, but the cause of the social conflict, capitalism, remained. The simmering tensions continued to smoulder, until the Great Depression, when capitalism once again fell into crisis, and Europe turned to fascism for easy answers. Once the socialists and communists were overcome, Europe slid into what Winston Churchill would later call “The Thirty Years War.”

Rosa Luxemburg's other famous work, also eventually forgotten was “The Accumulation of Capital”. It contained a relentless attack on colonialism, which Luxemburg explained not as a manifestation of nationalism, as some believed, but as an inevitable consequence of the growing power of the banking system. She systematically analysed the history of Britain's involvement in the dismantling of its colony Egypt. Through a serious of large “development loans” beginning in the 1860's, the British created a new source of cheap cotton as a replacement for Confederate cotton during the American Civil War. When the war ended, Egyptian cotton prices collapsed. The original debts of course could not be repaid. Consequently, the British lenders embarked on a disastrous series of bailout loans, each worse than the one before it, trying to “help” the Egyptians “recover” from the previous failed “development” program. The end result was the complete collapse of the Egyptian economy, culminating in a military invasion of Egypt. Luxemburg rightly identified war not as a consequence of nationalist fervour, but as the sledgehammer of the imperialist state employed in the service of the capitalists, as debt collectors.

Luxemburg's contributions to Marxist theory were a constant thorn in the side of those who hoped to divert revolutionary energies to party political ends. The history of her intellectual struggles against the male-dominated establishment make fascinating reading. But Rosa was always as fervently active in street actions and in organising as she was in the intellectual sphere. It is in fact her refusal to stop agitating which lead to her brutal murder on January 15, 1919, during the ill-fated German Revolution.

Rosa's political influence waned in the years following her death, but for a time, she represented a significant body of opinion in socialist thought. Rosa's most important contribution lies perhaps in her assertion that the revolution could not be dictated from above, but had to be discovered in a democratic manner, as the workers organised themselves and learned for themselves how best to prosecute their own liberation. This did not necessarily have to involve violence at all, as Marx and Engels both seemed to imply. It could occur peacefully. It is for this distinction that Rosa Luxemburg is best remembered by Socialist Aotearoa, in its support for “Socialism from below”. We conclude with her own words;
"The masses are in reality their own leaders, dialectically creating their own development process. The more that Social Democracy develops, grows, and becomes stronger, the more the enlightened masses of workers will take their own destinies, the leadership of their movement, and the determination of its direction into their own hands."
- Linda M.


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