Rosa Luxemburg was a brilliant, original thinker, a socialist revolutionary who has fascinated and inspired many of us for years. Her publications are numerous, as are the books and articles written about her. Examining the often dramatic events and varied experiences in her life and the controversies she became involved in is undoubtedly absorbing and time-consuming. Included here are just a few aspects of her writing that stand out for us as socialists in the twenty-first century as being particularly relevant to us today, subjects such as the radicalisation of working people, militarism and internationalism, offering only a glimpse of who she was and what she believed in and fought for.   

Luxemburg defended Marxist orthodoxy, had little time for parliamentary democracy and was convinced of the need for revolution. She disagreed with Marx in some respects, such as in their understanding as to how revolution would come about, but she concurred that the main divide in society was between bosses and workers, a ruling class and a working class. She also disagreed with Lenin’s democratic centralism, whereby it was claimed that a group of intellectuals should lead a tight, disciplined structure. She believed this was the route to dictatorship. There were many on the left at the time who accepted the reformist argument that workers’ lives could be transformed within the capitalist system. But Luxemburg argued that it would take a revolution to lead to this transformation. She advocated a general strike which she was convinced would have a substantial impact and be a strong force for change. Many socialists, including writers and supporters of Creating Socialism’s publications, have increasingly questioned the value of parliamentary democracy as we know it today, especially recently. Now and then our hopes may have been raised as a general election approaches, when we anticipated a particularly corrupt and cruel government being replaced. But certainly not this time. Our political elite are committed to capitalism and the free market, care little for the welfare of the vast majority of citizens in the UK and give scant thought to those overseas, except when it comes to extracting a profit from them. So our elections lead to more of the same, with perhaps a few little tweaks, paltry attempts to keep the electorate happy.

Of great relevance today is Luxemburg’s belief that the radicalisation of working people was essential. ”The masses are the crucial factor,” she wrote, shortly before she died. In 1918 when she was convinced of the successful outcome of revolution in Germany, she stated in her A Call to the Workers of the World,: “The Revolution in Germany has come! The masses of workers, who for four years were exploited, crushed, and starved, have revolted”. And here today we can see that working people’s lives have shown no fundamental shift while global capitalism still holds sway. Luxemburg believed in the power of collective action which would undermine profits and would also challenge the fabric of society. A sufficiently large action would be extraordinarily empowering and workers would see themselves successfully taking a stand against the wealth and privilege of the few. Then there would be a natural progression to a socialist revolution. This impact on working people was, according to Luxemburg, the “most precious, lasting, thing” to arise from strikes: “The most precious, lasting, thing in the rapid ebb and flow of the wave is its mental sediment: the intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat, which proceeds by fits and starts, and which offers an inviolable guarantee of their further irresistible progress in the economic as in the political struggle.”

And we have seen examples of the possibilities in this collective power. Forty years ago we believed the miners’ strike would lead to fundamental changes, as it almost brought the country to a standstill. But the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was divided, and few major trade unions supported the striking miners. But we should not underestimate the impact of this bitter dispute, The journalist Seumas Milne commented, “It has no real parallel – in size, duration and impact – anywhere in the world”. Over the last few years, as working people have gained strength and unity from a number of disputes involving their unions, we have seen the potential of collective action. About 30 trade unions in the UK have been involved in disputes, negotiations, ballots or industrial action since the beginning of 2022. This is a remarkable number and it is surprising that the unrest did not lead to a general strike, which many were calling for. And unfortunately strikes often took place on different days so the level of protest was not as clear and compelling as it could have been. Nevertheless, it was a time of increasing union strength and a time when many unions backed each other and lent their support to wider causes. 

War is methodical, organised, gigantic murder”. Luxemburg had an unwavering commitment to the campaign against militarism and was imprisoned for almost three and half years between 1914 and 1918. This was because of her uncompromising stand against war. She believed that human beings possess natural, fraternal instincts and that wars are at odds with these. “All war is male,” she observed, and, at the end of the 1914-1918 war, writing about the demands of the The Spartacus League, a socialist revolutionary group which opposed Germany’s role in World War I, she stated: “The capitalists of all nations are the real instigators of the mass murder”. At various times she spoke out against militarism for its role in the accumulation of capital and for the furthering of imperialism and the attendant exploitation of other continents and peoples. In a sensitive and moving letter written from prison in 1917, she describes the treatment of a buffalo by a German soldier which she witnessed during her arrest. She saw this as another expression of militarism and the brutality caused by war. Capire published a translation of the letter in 2022: “..blow upon blow, and blood running from gaping wounds … Poor wretch, I am as powerless, as dumb, as yourself; I am at one with you in my pain, my weakness, and my longing.” Today, more than one hundred years later, as wars and armed conflicts still rage all over the world and the seemingly endless slaughter of Palestinians continues day after day, Luxemburg’s analysis of the connections between capitalism, nationalism, militarism and imperialism and her rage against war could not be more relevant. 

Luxemburg repeatedly emphasised the importance of socialist internationalism. Here she was markedly at odds with the beliefs of the Allies in World War I, as they considered self-determination an important aim, to be put into practice when peace was achieved. She believed that the ideas of nationalism and national independence were concessions to the bourgeoisie. She did not agree with some of Lenin’s theories, and his theory of self-determination was one of these. Many problems and conflicts arise from nationalism. It is often considered a positive development in that it encompasses the belief in shared values, identity, history and culture. Some see it as a commendable force for pride and unity, but it can become aggressive and lead to the exclusion of and discrimination against minority groups. And how soon it can become jingoistic, aggressive and belligerent, associated with a sense of superiority and xenophobia, a willingness to involve the military in defence of a country and commitment to or complicity in war. In fact, as Dave Middleton wrote in December, it is “a naked emotion encouraged by the elite to support wars which often have an economic purpose”. But here and there we see the kind of unity that transcends borders and the unnecessary pride in one’s country. The disgust and worldwide protests at the killing in Gaza, the demonstrations about climate change, trade unions fighting for the rights of working people, these have so often recently been international in character with people rising in protest all over the world and cooperating across borders, perhaps an indication of how internationalism could work and benefit all of us. Luxemburg understood the need to see beyond our borders. In A Call to the Workers of the World she appeals to internationalists: “This great task cannot be accomplished by the German proletariat alone; it can only fight and triumph by appealing to the solidarity of the proletarians of the whole world.”

There are some sources which tell us rather more about Rosa Luxemburg as a person. This has so often been overlooked when the focus has been on her political writing. Some of her letters to her ‘comrade and lover’, Leo Jogiches, show her as a woman worrying about money, about making a comfortable home and hospitality. They reveal the difficulties of the relationship – the two were not altogether compatible – and Luxemburg complained that Jogiches did not have a ‘single loving word’ for her in his letters to her. When she became involved with other people, his jealousy drove him to pursue her through the streets of Berlin with a pistol. 

In her prison correspondence, she shows how she maintained her interest in the natural world outside and writes enthusiastically, poetically, about berries, trying to help the recipient of her letter identify some she had picked. She maintained an extraordinary level of good spirits: “I am always in a sort of joyful intoxication….I lie here alone and in silence, enveloped in the manifold black wrappings of darkness, tedium, unfreedom, and winter – and yet my heart beats with an immeasurable and incomprehensible inner joy, just as if I were moving in the brilliant sunshine across a flowery mead. And in the darkness I smile at life, as if I were the possessor of charm which would enable me to transform all that is evil and tragical into serenity and happiness.” 

Rosa Luxemburg was arrested with Karl Liebknecht, a co-founder of the Spartacus League. They were murdered in Berlin on 15th January 1919 by members of the Free Corps (Freikorps) a group of conservative paramilitaries. Over a century has passed, and yet Rosa Luxemburg’s commitment to change, her enduring hope and inspiring writing not only possess intrinsic interest but continue to be relevant to our thinking and actions today. She can still inspire us. Despite being on the receiving end of discrimination for being disabled, a Jew, a refugee and a woman, she remained an uncompromising socialist revolutionary: “Make no excuses and fight to change the world”

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