This episode is slightly different from the previous Fireside Chats. In this episode I discuss one of my favourite historical figures, Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919). Rosa Luxemburg was a Marxist philosopher and revolutionary. Her life has been covered in a lot more detail in a range of books than I could discuss here. If you want to learn more about her life I’d recommend reading the following:
- Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza, The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg
- Elzbieta Ettinger, Rosa Luxemburg
- Kate Evans, Red Rosa A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg
A bad case of the yips has seen this podcast severely delayed. It isn’t quite as tight or as good as I’d like it to be, but it is published so I can stop stressing about it and move on to the next podcast. Ideally it wouldn’t be any longer than 15 minutes, but here it is. This is also the first podcast to come with a transcript.
History Fireside Chats are produced, recorded and researched by Dr Kristopher Lovell. The audio was recorded using the Samson G-Track Pro: https://amzn.to/2YU2cit
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History Fireside Chats with Dr Kristopher Lovell: Episode 4:
The Life and Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg
Hello and welcome to the fourth History Fireside Chat. I’m Dr Kristopher, a lecturer in history at Coventry university.
Today I want to do something different. I want to talk about one of my favourite historical heroes: Rosa Luxemburg. I want to talk briefly about her life and her ideas before talking about her personality and why she is one of my favourite historical figures.
Rosa Luxemburg was one of the most influential political philosophers and Marxists thinkers of the twentieth century. Her political writings have left a strong mark in Marxist philosophy. But she was much more than a writer and a thinker. She was a strong activist who was not only willing to fight for her beliefs – she was prepared to die for them.
Luxemburg was born 5 March 1871 in Russian controlled Poland. As a Polish Jew, Luxemburg and her family experienced considerable discrimination, which Luxemburg was aware of more than most from a young age. At the age of five a misdiagnosis left her bed ridden for over a year leaving her with a lifelong limp for which she was mocked throughout most of her life. At ten, she witnessed a three-day pogrom destroyed her street and terrorised her family. Growing up she was attacked by her peers and her teachers for her identity, her disability and her gender.
However, she was a rebel from even a young age – she was associated with the revolutionary Proletariat Party and organised Mass Strikes before she had even graduated school. She was a member of the Proletariat Party even though it carried significant risks. Many leaders were executed for their actions. Luxemburg herself drew the attention of the police in 1889 which forced her to flee Poland for the safety of Zurich.
Once in Zurich Luxemburg studied natural science, economics and mathematics, specialising later in political science although she always retained her fascination about the natural world for most of her life. Luxemburg also used her time in Zurich to further her political reputation, engaging with the strong émigré community in Zurich, which was renowned at the time as safe haven in the late 1800s for political exiles across Europe. In 1893 Luxemburg became the editor of the Sprawa Robotnicza – the political organ of the Socialist Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland Party which gave Luxemburg access to the Third Congress of the Socialist International. This provided her with an opportunity to contribute and challenge Marxist ideas on a national and international scale.
- Reform or Revolution
In 1898 Luxemburg left the peace and calm of Zurich for the political battleground of Germany where she used her education and experience to support the Social Democratic Party of Germany. In a letter to Leo Jogiches, her political and romantic partner, Luxembourg stated ‘I feel as though I have arrived here as a complete stranger and all alone, to “conquer Berlin,” and having laid eyes on it, I now feel anxious in the face of its cold power, completely indifferent to me.’
That fear did not inhibit her however from writing some of the most profound Marxist texts or stop her from entering the political battlefield fiercely. Within just a year Luxemburg challenged one of the biggest Marxist figures of the day: Eduard Bernstein.
Bernstein, seen by some as the ‘heir’ of Marx, having published a series of articles challenging some of the key ideas of Marxism, for Bernstein, ‘the final goal of Marxism ‘whatever it may be is nothing to me, he claimed. The movement was everything. For Bernstein, the economic collapse that Marx predicted was looking unlikely as businesses adapted and placated their workers through various reforms leading to an end to general crises.
Luxemburg challenged Bernstein and the very basis of Bernstein’s ideas in Social Reform or Revolution. For her, the end goal of Marxism was everything. The revolution is the main goal, and reforms were merely ameliorating – they were useful for alleviating the poor conditions of the working class, but they should never be the final goal of Marxist or revolutionists.
‘He who pronounces himself in favour of the method of legal reforms in place and as opposed to the conquest of political power chooses a different goal’, she claimed. And in a searing turn of phrase she described Trade Unionism and its focus on reforms as a ‘Labour of Sisyphus.’ It would only ever achieve what Capitalism allowed them to achieve.
And Luxemburg continued to change several different ideas that Marxist theorists were propagating at the time.
2. Mass Strike
In her second work, her second key work, The Mass Strike which laid out Luxemburg’s ideas about the need for a general strike in order to achieve that revolutionary. She wrote it following the 1905 march on the Winter Palace in Russia, which spread revolutionary fever and revolutionary fear across Europe. Luxemburg wanted to encourage others to strike, to participate in a general strike which went against the ideas of most prominent socialists at the time. In her pamphlet the Mass Strike, Luxemburg argued for spontaneity in the strikes – and she argues that strikes should not be controlled by a vanguard of revolutionaries. Revolutionaries need to understand that they cannot control a revolution without destroying the revolution and its momentum. Instead of being a ‘vanguard of the revolution’ directing an organic revolution away from the proletariat, the vanguard should embrace the unpredictable spontaneity of strikes.
Advocating general strikes and questioning the attempt to lead the revolution might not seem like a controversial idea nowadays but at the time it put her at odds with a large number of socialists, and most importantly for her legacy, put her at odds with Lenin’s idea of revolutions and the role of the party leaders.
3. Accumulation of Capital
Perhaps Luxemburg’s most famous and seminal work is however her Accumulation of Capital – an economic essay on the process of capitalist accumulation which is one her most contested and criticised pieces. In this she attempts to explain the necessity for imperialist expansion – which Marxist theorists had not adequately explained. In this text, she argues that capitalism depends on sales outside of capitalist society – namely the pre-capitalist world. Thus, according to her capitalism had a limit. This was also controversial at the time because it challenged some of Marx’s basic ideas, which outraged many of Luxemburg’s more dogmatic critics. Despite the criticism this piece it demonstrates Luxemburg’s considerable knowledge economics and as Hudis and Anderson notes it ‘represents one of the most comprehensive efforts in the history of Marxism to account for what is now termed “the globalisation of capital”.
4.Attitude towards women
Luxemburg’s writings made her a known quantity in Germany and across Europe in political circles – one of the most well-known women in Marxist thought – however Luxemburg at this time was reluctant to identify herself as part of the women’s movement in socialism. According to her biographer Ettinger she described attendees at the international women’s congress in Berlin as ‘representatives of the fair sex from the bourgeoisie or at best the petite bourgeoisie’ who were ‘bored with the role of doll or husband’s cook’ seeking some action to ‘fill their empty heads and empty existence.’ However despite what critics have claim this does not mean that Luxemburg was not a feminist. Rather she felt that true emancipation for women lay in universal social change – something that the working-class women seemed to understand more than the bourgeois or middle class women at the time. Marxist Raya Dunayevskaya has claimed part of the reluctance to associated herself with the women’s movement stemmed from her refusal to be pigeonholed.  That said, Luxemburg never ignored women’s issues as some critics have claimed. In fact, in 1913 she radically proposed a birth strike to ‘prevent the continued flow of labour into the capitalist market’. Her criticism of the insular focus of many of these women’s organisations echo some of the more modern criticisms made of the WSPU and the Suffragettes where.
These theories which have I tried to quickly sum up are quite well covered in the secondary literature and they also demonstrate quite clearly Rosa Luxemburg’s intellectual prowess. They are important to the history of socialism however they are not why Luxemburg is one of my historical heroes or a hero for many others.
She believed the role of a thinker was to ‘doubt all’, to challenge ideas and to challenge others. For example in August 1914, when Europe went to war, many socialist figures across Europe abandoned their internationalist perspective in favour of nationalism – the German SPD were no exception with over 100 of their MPs voting in favour of war credits.
Luxemburg did not just break from the party line, she actively attacked it accusing the Left of rewriting the Communist manifesto to now read: “proletarians of all countries, unite in peace-time and cut each other’s throats in war!”
She opposed the war for the rest of her life and was imprisoned in February 1915 for inciting disobedience – this was one of her many stints in jail. From her cell she continued to oppose the war, writing pamphlets and articles challenging the socialist parties. When the Russian Revolution succeeded in 1917, she celebrated the success of the revolution whilst also challenging the Bolsheviks for their land policy, focus on self-determination and terror. And t his criticism led to one of her most famous pronouncements:
‘Freedom is always exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.’
These criticisms would later cause her to be denounced as a Menshevik by Stalin and cause her to be seen as a rival of Lenin despite the fact that she praised his actions and the work of the Bolsheviks on many occasions.
Luxemburg was not just a writer, thinker, or an armchair socialist. She was prepared to get involved in political actions on the ground.
In October 1918, revolutionary spirit spread across Germany, reaching Berlin on 9 November. Hundreds of thousands marched on the Reichstag, forcing the abdication of the Kaiser, and Freidrich Ebert, the chairman of the SPD became chancellor. Whist most of the German left were content to accept their new position in charge of a new Government, Karl Liebknecht (a close ally Luxemburg) called for a Socialist Republic. Because of this challenge, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were forced into hiding, during which time they formed a Communist Party of Germany to try to progress the revolution further.
Throughout the end of 1918, revolutionary continued to boil under the surface for many people. In early January 1919, thousands of workers gathered in Berlin which was interpreted as a sign by some that further revolutionary action was wanted and needed: Liebknecht himself used the moment to call for the overthrow of the government – although Luxemburg knew the revolution was premature and even doomed, she continued to support her colleagues in the face of violent suppression. To suppress the revolution, the Freikorps, comprising disgruntled, right-wing veterans closed in on Berlin and brutally shut down the uprising, Luxemburg continued to support the people and to support her colleagues.
During the suppression of this uprising, Luxemburg continued to write powerful ideas. As the uprising crumbled around her, she wrote in her last article their defeat was ‘the seed of future triumph’.
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!
The day after that article was published in The Red Flag (Rote Fahne), soldiers of the Freikorps arrested Liebknecht and Luxemburg – Liebknecht was shot, and Luxemburg beaten to death, her body dumped in the Landswehrkanal.
Her devotion to the cause and her willing to face her death showed that Luxemburg was never just a theoretician who supported revolution from within an ivory tower – she was involved personally even when she disagreed with them, and even when they could cost her her life.
Following their deaths, her former lover and political collaborator Leo Jogiches later sent a message to Lenin: “Karl and Rosa have fulfilled their final revolutionary duty”. Lenin himself would later defend her memory and her actions:
“In spite of her mistakes she was – and remains for us – an eagle. And not only will the memory of her always remain precious to Communists all over the world but her biography and her complete works […] will serve as a useful lesson in the training of many generations of Communists all over the world”.
However following Lenin’s death in 1924, Luxemburg’s popularity declined rapidly and her memory distorted. She is seen now by some as an overly violent figure by her critics despite the fact that she opposed the violence in the Russian revolution. She was called a pox by the leader of the KPD in 1924 and then Stalin himself levelled an attack against her as a Menshevik – effective effacing her form the canon of Marxist ideology. Trotsky’s attempt to defend her did little to save her reputation.
After the Second World War, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) her memory was resurrected as she was commemorated every year in January at the Luxemburg-Liebknecht- Lenin-marches. The East German state used her legacy to legitimise themselves. However, what was perhaps the most honest use of her legacy came from the dissidents living in East Germany in 1988 who used the state’s co-option of her memory to remind the Stasi supported state that ‘Freedom is always freedom to think differently.’
Today her legacy continues. There are marches every January in her name and she has become a popular figure amongst the left because her legacy and ideas are somewhat untainted by the violence and repressive nature of the Soviet Union. Ironically, one can now buy tea towels and t-shirts adorning her face – she’s become a commercial product despite all her writing against capitalism.
Yet despite all that history, those ideas and her actions, she remains an historical inspiration to me because of her humanity. Her letters reveal someone who was genuinely empathetic and supported the emancipation of all people. ‘I have no special corner in my heart for the ghetto’, she said, ‘I am at home in the entire world, where there are clouds and birds and human tears.’
Her letters reveal a person who was force of nature, and yet in awe of nature. Taking the time to consider the birds from her garden in Berlin and from her prison cell. Who cared about how animals were treated nearly as much as humans were. Her letters also reveal, as Vivian Gornick, points out – how she wanted it all. Marriage. Independence. An education. A family. Niceties. Revolution.
She achieved so much within her lifetime and beyond, contributing some of the most erudite writings on Marxism. Yet she, like so many of us, struggled to put pen to paper, struggled to express her ideas sometimes. As she wrote to Leo Jogiches, she did not feel like a ‘real writer’:
‘I feel poisoned when I have any kind of difficulty with my writing. Dammit, I absolutely am not a real writer when every blessed little article makes me tear my hair out and I have to force myself to write it.’
She was a revolutionary force, but also simply human. One who struggled with the hypocrisies of life and love. One who would write to her lovers telling them how the revolution could be achieved in one paragraph and asking for affection and reassurance in another. She was attacked and criticised on the grounds of her gender, her disability, her identity. Despite all that, and despite all her own insecurities and self-doubts, she persisted and made sure she was heard.
If you are interested in reading more about the life of Rosa Luxemburg, I would strongly recommend reading her letters. A wonderful version came out around 10 years, edited by Adler, Hudis and Laschitza. Elzbieta Ettinger wrote a very readable and wonderful biography of her in the 1980s. More recently, the story of Luxemburg was depicted by Kate Evans’s beautiful graphic novel, Red Rosa.
Thank you for listening. I hope you will join me next time for History Fireside Chats. If there is a topic you would like me to explore in the future please let me know on Twitter or by messaging me on my website (kristopherlovell.com)
 Her early life is well covered by J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (1969) and E, Ettinger, Rosa Luxemburg: A Life (1986).
 Rosa Luxemburg Social Reform or Revolution (1900) by https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/index.htm
 Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (1906)
 Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (1913) https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1913/accumulation-capital/
 Ettinger, p. 113
 Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (1982), p. 89
 Rosa Luxemburg, Rebuilding the International (1915) https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/xx/rebuild-int.htm
 Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution Chapter 6 The Problem of Dictatorship https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/russian-revolution/ch06.htm
 Rosa Luxemburg, Order Prevails in Berlin (January 1919) https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1919/01/14.htm
 Lenin, Pravda No. 87, April 16, 1924 https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm
 Weitz, Eric D. “‘Rosa Luxemburg Belongs to Us!” German Communism and the Luxemburg Legacy.” Central European History, vol. 27, no. 1, 1994, pp. 27–64.
 Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship; Inside the GDR, 1949-1989 (1997) p. 238
 Rosa Luxemburg to Mathilde Wurm [Wronke i. P., Fortress, February 16, 1917]
 Rosa Luxemburg to Leo Jogiches, [Friedenau, October 10, 1905]
All quotes from Luxemburg’s letters are from: Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza, The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg
Music used: Public Domain
Bach, Cello Suite no. 1 in G major, BWV 1007, I. Prélude. Interprété par Pablo Casals.
Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 – ii. Andant con moto
Irving Berlin, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”, (1919)
“Sing me my song” (Polish folk song – Unknown Artist))