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The Politics of Red Rosa

On January 15, 1919, a group of Freikorps (German paramilitaries) murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. What they could not kill was the powerful ideas of the “red rose” of the world proletariat, Rosa Luxemburg.

Josefina L. Martínez

January 15, 2019
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Rosa Luxemburg was shot in the head and her body dumped in the Landwehr Canal. Her body was not found for almost four months. Liebknecht was killed in a nearby park. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD, by its German initials) of Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske were responsible for this tremendous political crime. Their goal was to crush the German “revolution of the workers’ councils” in 1919 by murdering and persecuting its most radical wing, led by Rosa and Karl.

Luxemburg was part of a generation of Marxists, along with Lenin and Trotsky, who developed strategic thinking within the Marxist tradition, focused on the struggle for the international socialist revolution.

Reform or Revolution?

In 1898, Luxemburg arrived in Germany, where she joined the SPD, the main party of the Second International. Her skills as a theorist and polemicist soon stood out in the debate over the “revisionism” of Eduard Bernstein.

In a series of articles published in the Neue Zeit magazine, Bernstein questioned Marxism’s fundamental theses on capitalism and class struggle. He argued that, through the expansion of the credit system and the trusts, capitalism had managed to overcome the general crisis. If capitalist catastrophes were no longer an imminent possibility, the struggle for socialism did not need to go through the “trauma” of a revolution but would progress gradually, based on the expansion of parliamentary democracy and the growth of unions and cooperatives.

Bernstein’s revisionism attacks the heart of Marxist theory, postponing the struggle for a socialist society for a remote future lost on the horizon.

According to him, the movement for winning reforms within capitalist society became an end in itself: “the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything.” Once the goal of the socialist revolution was blurred, completely separated from concrete political practice, Social Democracy could abandon the terrain of class struggle, moderating its discourse so as not to lose the support of the middle classes and seeking alliances with the Liberal Party to reach majorities in Parliament.

The transformations of capitalism in the late 19th century were the backdrop of the revisionist theses. The development of monopolies, the export of capital and the control of the colonies shaped the transition to the imperialist phase of capitalism. In this context of capitalist development and increasing profits for the European capitalists, the ruling classes granted some concessions to the working class, in particular to the “labor aristocracy” in the imperialist countries.

At the same time in Germany, the annulment of Bismarck’s antisocialist laws in 1890 allowed unparalleled growth of the unions and the SPD. [1]

Luxemburg challenged Bernstein’s ideas, arguing that capitalism had not overcome its tendency to crisis. According to her, the development of the monopolies and the credit system did not lessen capitalism’s contradictions but aggravated them. For Luxemburg, therefore, the premises of socialist revolution remained valid.

In her book “Reform and Revolution,” she argued that socialism was not a moral aspiration or a desire based on idealistic foundations, but a concrete need that was based on the analysis of the contradictions of capitalist society:

“The scientific basis of socialism rests, as is well known, on three principal results of capitalist development. First, on the growing anarchy of capitalist economy, leading inevitably to its ruin. Second, on the progressive socialization of the process of production, which creates the germs of the future social order. And third, on the increased organization and consciousness of the proletarian class, which constitutes the active factor in the coming revolution.”

In Luxemburg’s dialectical thought, there was a direct relationship between the methods of class struggle and the goal socialism– a dynamic that Bernstein denied. This means that, for Luxemburg, reform and revolution were not two distinct strategies or phases in socialist organizing. For her, the struggle for reforms can be a motor for organizing for socialist revolution if that struggle uses the methods of the working class: pickets, strikes and the general strike. But if social reform became an end in itself, it would be an obstacle in the struggle for a new society.

Further, she argued that the problem of reformism as a strategy is that it does not take into account cycles of capitalist crisis. While in moments of massive profits, the capitalist class may be willing to allow for some reforms, these will be ripped away from the working class in times of crisis. In this sense, social reforms could not offer “more than promises lacking in content, the logical consequence of such a program will necessarily be disillusionment.”

Bernstein on the other hand saw working class actions in unions as the way to progressively achieve a fairer distribution of wealth within the capitalist mode of production. Luxemburg pointed out that, without breaking the machinery of the capitalist system, the trade unions were condemned to carry out “a kind of Sisyphus work”: to advance, retreat and start over every time, as a result of the renewed attacks of capital.

The controversy around revisionism anticipated the hard debates within Social Democracy in the years to come. Economic growth and the low level of class struggle since the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 had led the SPD leadership to adapt to the parliamentary and union routine of tactics. In the party and in the unions, there was consolidated An enormous bureaucratic apparatus was consolidated within the party and within the unions. Rosa Luxemburg was one of the first socialists to fight it.

Evolution Becomes a Revolution

The 1905 revolution in Russia was the first great explosion of class struggle in Europe since the defeat of the Paris Commune. The general strike and the emergence of the Soviets marked the movement’s emergence, opening important debates within European Social Democracy.

Luxemburg agreed with Trotsky and Lenin—against the Mensheviks—that the working class had to play a leading role in the Russian Revolution, independent of the liberal bourgeoisie. She became a spokeswoman for the Russian Revolution in Germany, wrote several articles about it and went through meetings to share the lessons she took from the Russian experience with the German workers: “Evolution becomes a revolution. We are seeing the Russian Revolution, and we would be asses if we did not learn from it.” Then she traveled clandestinely to Warsaw to participate directly in the events there and was imprisoned for several months.

Throughout Europe, the Russian Revolution sparked strikes and protests, and German workers were increasingly interested in experience of their Russian compatriots. In her book “The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions”, Luxemburg argued that Western Social Democracy had to learn from the Russian Revolution and organize the mass political strike.

However, the German trade unions passed a resolution opposing the general strike, and the leadership of the SPD adopted the position of the union bureaucracy at the Manheim Congress, in 1906. Luxemburg fought the conservative positions of union leaders within the party in the book mentioned above: “Judging from the speeches that have so far been made in the debate of the mass political strike, you have to hold your head with your hands and ask yourself, do we really live in the year of the glorious Russian Revolution or are we ten years behind?”

She argued that the general strike was a new form of revolutionary struggle and distinguished between punctual and orderly strikes and militant strikes, in which the economic and the political intersected. She considered that Social Democracy should not limit itself to a passive role in the development of the German political situation. According to her, the SPD “cannot and should not wait with fatalism, with crossed arms, for a ‘revolutionary situation’ to occur or for the spontaneous popular movement to fall from the sky. On the contrary, it has the duty as always to anticipate the course of events, seeking to precipitate them.”

The debate went even deeper in 1910 when Luxemburg polemicized with strategy for the Social Democratic Party proposed by her former ally, Karl Kautsky in the context of a new wave of workers’ struggles in Germany. Luxemburg argued that the party should call for the political strike, while Kautsky thought this could only endanger the gains Social Democracy had already made.

Kautsky argued that the party had to wait for the next elections in 1912, to increase the Social Democratic influence in Parliament. Kautsky defined its own orientation as a “strategy of attrition” and opposed it to the “strategy of overthrow” attributed to Luxemburg. Kautsky’s central idea was “to avoid decisive combats,” to accumulate forces and “to wear down the enemy.” Luxemburg replied that this was “nothing more than parliamentarism.”

The debate between the two delimited the left wing of German Social Democracy from both Bernstein and Kautsky. Even before Lenin, Luxemburg began the struggle against the conservative role played by the bureaucratic leadership in the German Social Democratic Party and in the unions, which anticipated the counterrevolutionary orientation they would take in the face of the imperialist war.

Socialism or Barbarism

In 1914 the revisionists’ dream of a gradual and peaceful development of capitalism was shattered by war. Since the publication of the “Communist Manifesto,” the socialist movement was clear on the importance of internationalism: “Workers of the world, unite!”

The Social Democratic parties had always held that, in the event of a war between imperialist powers, the workers would refuse to fight and call for a general strike. But at the decisive moment, the largest and best-formed party of the Second International—it had a million members and had the support of a third of the electorate—did the opposite. The European socialist parties followed the ruling classes into the war.

When the German Reichstag voted for a war budget on August 4, 1914, the 110 Social Democratic deputies voted in favor. This was a hard blow for the workers’ movement. The Social Democratic parties put forward the defense of the “homeland”—that is, unity with the bourgeoisie of their own nation—instead of the unity with the European countries working class. Luxemburg couldn’t believe what was happening. Several Social Democrats gathered in her house that same day, with whom she founded a group to oppose the war. In December there was a new vote to support the military budget in Parliament, and Karl Liebknecht was the only Social Democrat deputy who opposed it. His speech became famous: “No to war, the enemy is at home.”

Since the failure of the vast majority of the SPD, Luxemburg focused her activity on agitating against the First World War, which earned her the accusation of traitor. As a result she was sent to prison.

From January 1915 to November 1918, she was held in German prisons almost all the time. In 1916 she published the article “The Crisis of the German Social Democracy,” known as “Junius Pamphlet”. It was a sharp criticism of the social catastrophe and the betrayal of the Second International.

She wrote in her pamphlet:
“Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth—there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law—but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form. In the midst of this witches’ sabbath, a catastrophe of world-historical proportions has happened: International Social Democracy has capitulated. To deceive ourselves about it, to cover it up, would be the most foolish, the most fatal thing the proletariat could do.”

The questions of “socialism or barbarism” became a reality in the war, in which millions of people died. For Luxemburg, socialism was not a destiny predetermined by history; the only “inevitability” was the collapse that capitalism was leading toward and the calamities that would accompany this process if the working class could not prevent it: “If the proletariat fails to fulfill its tasks as a class, if it fails in the realization of socialism, we will all crash together in the catastrophe.”

In the next article in this series, Josefina Martinez will discuss Luxemburg’s role in the German revolution of 1919 and her indefatigable struggle to forge a revolutionary organization.


[1] That year, the SDP won 1.4 million votes and 35 deputies in the Reichstag. The following years would continue that trend: In 1905 it reached 400,000 members and in 1912 it became the first parliamentary force with 110 deputies. It had powerful workers’ associations, women’s groups, dozens of newspapers and cultural centers.

[2] Luxemburg , Rosa; Reform or Revolution.

[3]Luxemburg , Rosa; The Mass Strike.

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Josefina L. Martínez

Josefina is a historian from Madrid and an editor of our sister site in the Spanish State, IzquierdaDiario.es.


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