Rosa Luxemburg: The Woman who Tried to Incite Revolution

"In spite of her mistakes she was – and remains for us – an eagle."

Words: Fin Quinlan

Rosa was born to a middle-class family in Poland and was forced to flee the country as a teenager due to her radical left-wing politics.

She began her activism in the Polish Proletariat Party organising a general strike, yet when four of the leaders of the Proletariat Party were put to death for the strike the party was disbanded, with Rosa attending the meetings in secrecy and eventually fleeing Poland to Switzerland in 1889. Attending the University of Zurich she specialised in political science and was one of the few women in Zurich to have a doctorate.

April 1897 saw Rosa move on yet again, she married the son of her friend to obtain German citizenship because she wanted to be in amongst the centre of revolutionary politics. The pair never lived together and were formally divorced only five years later after which she moved to Berlin and began fighting for cultural reform.

Luxemburg, along with her friend and fellow martyr Karl Liebknecht founded the Spartacus League in 1914. A Marxist revolutionary movement named after the leader of the largest slave rebellion of the Roman Republic with the goal of being the catalyst of a global proletarian revolution. Writing anti-war pamphlets Luxemburg took up the pseudonym Junius (after Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic) she was jailed in June of 1916 as a result, yet had her friends illegally smuggle and publish her articles throughout her two-and-a-half-year imprisonment.

During this prison time, Rosa secretly published some of her most famous and influential work including The Russian Revolution and The Crisis in the German Social Democracy. In the former, she agreed with Lenin’s ideas on overthrowing the existing regime. Although she was quite critical of the Bolsheviks revolutionary struggle, writing:

‘The Bolsheviks have supplied the ideology which has masked the campaign of counter-revolution; they have strengthened the position of the bourgeoisie and weakened that of the proletariat... With the phrase about the self-determination of nations the Bolsheviks furnished water for the mills of counter-revolution and thus furnished an ideology not only for the strangling of the Russian Revolution itself, but for the planned counter-revolutionary liquidation of the entire World War.’

Even with this Lenin and Luxemburg admired each other and were in frequent contact through letters and after her death, Lenin wrote of Rosa:

‘In spite of her mistakes she was – and remains for us – an eagle. And not only will communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of communists all over the world.’

Just before the end of The Great War on the 8th of November 1918, Rosa was freed from prison and a day later her revolutionary partner Karl Leibknecht was also freed. Immediately the pair reformed the Spartacus League and founded a newspaper called The Red Flag. Rosa used the newspaper to campaign for amnesty for political prisoners and the abolition of capital punishment.

On New Year’s Day, 1919 Rosa Luxemburg declared:

‘Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. Nay, more; not merely are we today in a position to perform this task, nor merely is its performance a duty toward the proletariat, but our solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction.’

On the 5th of January, the January Revolt began. Hundreds of thousands of people stormed the centre of Berlin in a strike, train stations, and newspaper offices were stormed with the papers calling for the raising of the Freikorps, a German volunteer nationalist paramilitary militia, and the murder of the Spartacists. After storming the Police Headquarters the demonstrators elected a 53-member Interim Revolutionary Committee that demanded the overthrow of the government. Although in opposition to this Rosa Luxemburg was seen as a leader of the revolution.

The following day the people took to the streets with banners stating ‘Brothers, don’t shoot!’. Meanwhile, the KPD (German communist party) called for the overthrow of the government and armed themselves. Government troops were moving to Berlin and leaflets were spread saying ‘The hour of reckoning is nigh’. Beginning on the 9th of January the Government used the troops to violently suppress the revolutionaries and by the 12th the anti-communist Freikorps had formed death squads clearing buildings and executing the occupiers on the spot, murdering even those who chose to surrender. Claiming 156 lives, the January Revolution was over.

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht were discovered after refusing to flee Berlin on the 15th of January by a civilian militia and were brought before the Freikorps at the Eden Hotel. Although the exact details are unknown Rosa was brought into the lobby of the hotel and beaten by a group of guards with rifle butts, she was dragged into a truck and shot in the back of the head. Her body thrown into the Landwehr Canal would not be found for months.

Rosa Luxemburg died for her beliefs, she never shied away from speaking for justice. She was a public speaker, organiser, activist, and pioneering thinker who contributed so much to the political theory of the 20th century. On the eve of her murder, she wrote:

‘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!’

Rosa Luxemburg lived and died with the hopes of a German revolution and the nationalist frontier responsible for her death would later go on to form a vanguard of the Nazi party. Her ideas live on and will influence struggles throughout the world.

Long Live Rosa Luxemburg.

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